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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

On being a blue monster

by John MacBeath Watkins

Among the autopsies of the recent election, the largest group blamed the result on people who didn't vote for Donald Judas Trump: Liberals.

Apparently, if you live in a city near salt water (and not in the Southeast) you are part of a blue bubble whose occupants, through their smug condescension, "created" Trump. Politico outlines the process (dare I say it, with smug condescension) in this article.

The prism of history changes the meaning of events, and nothing could show this more clearly than the Politico article. It begins:
Well before Donald Trump declared he was running—to the amusement of the liberal media and Washington establishment, who didn’t stop laughing until Nov. 8—and long before Hillary Clinton dismissed half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables,” the right had gotten used to being looked down upon by liberals. The general attitude of the left was: Disagree with us? You’re probably racist, xenophobic, sexist, bigoted or all of the above. Indeed, for many liberal Americans, these prejudices have come to be seen as inseparable from identity of the Republican Party itself.
Now, perhaps Politico has a different view of David Duke and other "alt-right" characters, but I think they are deplorable. And while the right seems never to pay a price for stereotyping their opponents, liberals never seem to stop apologizing when they do it.

So, by hurting the feelings of "real Americans," the headline on the story tells us, "the left created Trump.".

What kind of monster would create Donald Trump? Apparently, a blue monster, one who lives in an area where Trump got few votes. The New York Times went so far as to quote from a 1998 book that supported the the blue-blaming theme. That book, Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country, published in 1998, said the following:
Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. 
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …
I've known postmodern professors.  They did not call the shots, and most taught as adjunct faculty, the temp workers of the academic world. As we move on to whatever is post- postmodernist, they will become ciphers even more than they are now. Smug bureaucrats? Rorty wrote that description in a book published only three years after a right-wing nut killed 168 people by setting off a truck-sized bomb outside the Oklahoma City Federal Building. It was a bit of a clanger to have written, at about the time the jury was sentencing Timothy McVeigh to death for the bombing, that the real problem was smug bureaucrats.

I know exactly why I hadn't heard of Rorty's book before. It came out claiming there was an economic crisis at one of the few times in recent decades when we had full employment and real wages were rising, in those sunny days near the end of the Clinton Administration. It was only the application of the right's favored formula for economic success, banking deregulation and tax cuts that favored the rich, that things got worse, bringing on the worst recession since the Great Depression, and the election of our first African-American president. After eight years of liberal policy, unemployment got down to below 5%, and real wages started to rise again. So, obviously, they needed to get someone to push the old snake oil again.

But the problem isn't that the right sometimes does something wrong. It's always the fault of the left, for having made them do something wrong. How dare they connect the Republican party to racists, just because the Republican Party nominee for president was re-tweeting stuff from white supremacists on a regular basis?

And how could the left think conservatives were in any way connected to racism? Was it just because the Republican Party pursued a Southern strategy, going after the voters and politicians who felt their racism was better accepted in the Republican Party after Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act?

After all, conservatives did what the left would not. They made people feel comfortable and accepted for their attitudes about race and gender preference. The party has been doing that since about 1964, when Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act.

And Trump won by doing what the Republican Party has been doing for more than 50 years. He made it feel okay to be racist, and fight against being oppressed by smug postmodernists who we all know wield much more power in our society than people like the Koch brothers.

Did Republicans "have" to do this? Well, if they'd managed to nominate a more normal candidate, along the lines of Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, they'd have likely been well ahead in the polls as the election resulted. It's quite normal when a party has held the presidency for eight years for them to lose it.

Allan Lichtman, whose model had correctly predicted the winner of the popular vote for president from its invention prior to the 1984 election through the 2012 election, faced a model that said Donald Trump would win in 2016. This time, he hedged his bets.

Why did Lichtman, who teaches history at American University in Washington, D.C., feel a need to hedge?

His model is based on 13 key facts, and he figures if six of the keys are met, the party in power will lose. One of those keys was whether people were sufficiently disenchanted with the major parties that someone else would get 5%. While the polls prior to the election showed Libertarian Gary Johnson getting more than 5%, Lichtman recognized that this could flip. And, Lichtman told the Washington Post:
The second qualification is Donald Trump. We have never seen someone who is broadly regarded as a history-shattering, precedent-making, dangerous candidate who could change the patterns of history that have prevailed since the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
Those keys are linked, because of the possibility that many people would see Trump as too dangerous to take a chance on and vote for Clinton rather than cast a protest vote.

As it happened, it looks like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein together will finish with less than 5% of the vote. Therefore, the model would say that Hillary Clinton would win the popular vote, as she did. But to predict the election, Lichtman would have had to make that assumption before the election, which he does not seem to have done.

But in the end, Trump has been elected, and we'll have to live with that, whether we are the sort of blue monsters that hurt the feelings of the people who voted for him or the sort of people who actually voted for him. His administration has the potential to change the patterns of history that have defined our country for more than 150 years, and it's easy to see why, for example, a publication like Politico might want to shift the blame from their own failure to vet Trump the candidate.














Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Non-representative democracy for an undemocratic republic

by John MacBeath Watkins

From Vox:

More Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. More Americans voted for Democratic Senate candidates than for Republican Senate candidates. And while we don’t have final numbers yet, it looks likely that more Americans will have voted for House Democrats than for House Republicans.

The senate was designed this way, giving two senators to every state, whether they represent the 582,658 people of Wyoming, or the 38,332,521 people of California. Each senator represents 291,329 people in Wyoming and 19,166,260.5 in California. This means that in the senate, Wyoming voters are 65.8 times as powerful as California voters in any decision made by the senate.

The remedy designed for this is that the House of Representatives is allocated by population, with each state having at least one House member. Therefore, Wyoming's one House member represents 582,658 people, and each of California's 53 House members represent 723,255 people.

Notice I say people, not voters. When the constitution was written, some slave states had more slaves than free men. This remained the case up to the end of the Civil War: South Carolina, the first state to secede, had a total population of 703,708 and a slave population of 402,406 in the 1860 census. The compromise that helped bring the slave states into the union allowed them to count slaves as 3/5 of a person for purposes of determining how many congressmen they were allocated, and electoral college members as well.

There are 538 members of the electoral college, one for each House member, one for each senator, and three for Washington, D.C., since the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961. This means that each of the 55 electors from California represent 696,955 people, while Wyoming's 3 electors each represents 194,219 people. In electing a president, Wyoming's voters are roughly 3.6 times as powerful as California voters.

And since this power structure is based on population, not votes cast, during the Jim Crow years, states paid no penalty for preventing African Americans from voting. Nor do states in the present day pay any penalty for suppressing the votes of African Americans and Hispanics.

The result of all this is that a party that gets a minority of votes can elect the president and gain majorities in the senate and house. The problem is made worse by gerrymandering. After the election of our first African American president in 2008, Republicans were looking at a demographic death spiral as the country became more diverse and more urban.

Their response was a concerted effort to make America less democratic. They recognized that the backlash against the election of a black president gave them an opportunity, and outspent Democrats 3-1 on an all-out effort to capture enough state legislatures and governorship to control a large part of the redistricting that was done based on the 2010 census, as Pro Publica detailed here. The results have been extraordinarily successful.

Republican now control the senate, the House of Representatives, the presidency, and the power to appoint judges who will favor them. They also control most state legislatures and governorships. They have the power to change the rules of the game so that they can prevent those who would vote against them from voting.

The question that remains is, how long can a minority party successfully rule a republic where a majority of the citizens don't agree with their program?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The unpatriotic right keeps cooperating with foreign powers

by John MacBeath Watkins

Donald Trump tried to make himself seem patriotic by literally groping an American flag. But his victory owed something to the Russian hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

And having dealt with some Trump trolls on the internet, I can tell you, there are many on the right who have no problem with this Russian intervention in an American election. As long as it helped their guy beat Hillary Clinton, they are fine with a foreign power trying to tip an American election.

This isn't the first indication we've had that many Republican care more about gaining power than about their country. There was Richard Nixon's campaign, which contacted the South Vietnamese government to tell them that Nixon could get them better terms than Johnson if they would scuttle the peace talks, at a time when Nixon was claiming he had a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam war.

From Politico:

Did Richard Nixon’s campaign conspire to scuttle the Vietnam War peace talks on the eve of the 1968 election to capture him the presidency? 
Absolutely, says Tom Charles Huston, the author of a comprehensive, still-secret report he prepared as a White House aide to Nixon. In one of 10 oral histories conducted by the National Archives and opened last week, Huston says “there is no question” that Nixon campaign aides sent a message to the South Vietnamese government, promising better terms if it obstructed the talks, and helped Nixon get elected.
Delaying the peace treaty until the end of the war was close enough to benefit Nixon in his re-election campaign turned out to be the secret plan, but the lives lost as the war ground on were incidental to the larger cause of getting and keeping Nixon in office.

Gary Sick, a Middle East specialist, wrote a 1991 book called October Surprise that claimed Ronald Reagan's campaign contacted Iran to delay the release of the hostages taken when the American Embassy was attacked in 1979. I would discount that, except that the Reagan Administration later illegally sold arms to Iran (in the Iran-Contra scandal) in part, apparently, to get the release of seven hostages held by Iranian allies in Lebanon.

And, of course, we have the example of the last eight years, when Republicans did all they could to ensure President Barack Obama would fail, hindering efforts to help the country recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. Republicans who helped pass a stimulus bill for President George W. Bush in 2008 balked at approving a stimulus bill in 2009, when the country was in much worse shape, because it would be a success for President Obama. Suddenly, they felt that the appropriate response to a recession was austerity.

They even shut down the government in 2013 in an effort to defund the Affordable Care act, also known as Obamacare. After Republicans won majorities in both the house and senate in the 2010 election, Mitch McConnell, who would soon be the Senate Majority Leader, said "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

More important than the good of the country was Republican dominance of the national government.

And now, it's not just harm to American citizens they will countenance. It is the assistance of a foreign power.

Republics can be vulnerable to foreign intervention in their politics. One reason the Polish-Lithuanian Empire fell was that its legislative body, the Sjem, could be subverted by foreign powers. One feature of the Sjem was the liberum veto, which said that any one legislator could nullify legislation that had just passed and end the session by showing "I do not allow!"

Foreign powers soon discovered that they could bribe legislators to use their liberum veto to nullify anything the foreign power did not like. Rather than eliminate the liberum veto, Poland kept it and was overrun by its enemies.

With modern republics, the opportunity comes more in the electoral process. From the Daily Beast:
For nearly a decade, Russia has established ties with far-right parties in Eastern Europe, including Hungary’s Jobbik, Bulgaria’s anti-EU Attack movement, and Slovakia’s far-right People’s party. 
The Eastern European far-right parties have returned the love, whether by supporting the 2008 Russian war against Georgia or by vocalizing support for Putin, as the Bulgarian Attack party has. In 2012, Attack’s leader, Volen Siderov, even popped over to Moscow to ring in Putin’s 60th birthday. Siderov also threatened to withdraw his party’s support from the coalition government if it supported further sanctions against Russia, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. 
However, in recent years Russian influence has been moving west. In a 2014 report, the Budapest-based research institute Political Capital argued that Russia’s meddling in political affairs of the European far right has become a “phenomenon seen all over Europe.”
And now, we're seeing it here. The American right used to see Russia as the enemy, but since it made its transition from communism to fascism, the far right seems willing to embrace the Russian bear. They seem to care less about being American than about what Vladimir Putin represents -- a white strongman running his nation without regard to what minorities want.









Saturday, November 12, 2016

The rise of illiberal democracy

by John MacBeath Watkins

Francis Fukuyama, in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, said that:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
He failed to anticipate the resiliency of authoritarianism. They still hold elections in Zimbabw, Russia, and Iran, but not just anyone is allowed to run and not just anyone is allowed to publish opinions about who people should vote for.

Elections, the press, and the judiciary are subjugated to a strong leader or oligarchy. Russia, for example, now has a record of not just silencing its critics, but of killing them, even if they live abroad. People like Vladimir Putin, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, or Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe may think they need the trappings of democracy to have legitimacy as a government, but they do not tolerate its substance.

One of the marks of such regimes is that they silence the press or find ways to bend it to their will. A tactic often used is to set people against each other, Mugabe, for example, instigated genocide against the Ndebele people, killing about 20,000 people. Claiming there was an internal threat enabled him to consolidate one-party rule.

An internal threat can be used to silence critics, as Turkey's Recep Erdogan is doing in Turkey, detaining lawmakers from the opposition party based on claims that they were associated with Kurdish militarists and arresting the editor and about a dozen journalists from a left-of-center newspaper which had embarrassed him. He claimed the newspaper had ties to a cleric living in exile in the United States, who is supposed to have been the inspiration for a failed coup attempt.

It has long bothered me that some on the far right seem to regard the constitution as a rough draft, constantly wanting to change it to comply with their agenda on issues like same-sex marriage and the balanced budget (legislators could, of course, simply pass balanced budgets if that's what they want.) Would-be strongmen take this approach as well, for example when Erdogan decided the Turkish constitution needed to give the Turkish president more power, or when Chavez, at the peak of his popularity, held a referendum to revise Venezuela's constitution to give him more power.

The problem is, when you vote in someone who does not really believe in democracy, it's hard to get rid of him (and it usually is a "him.") When the same party controls both the legislature and the executive branch, and allows only its own picks to get on the courts, only the leader's own party can control a drift to authoritarianism. And, if they are getting their agenda passed by the strongman, why would they?

Only a strong commitment to democratic principles on the part of all powerful parties in a system can stem the authoritarian drift. The question for our nation is, do we have that?



Thursday, November 10, 2016

Globalization and its discontents

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the villains of the conspiracy buffs is the Bilderberg Group, a bunch of influential people who meet together to discuss an agenda to "bolster a consensus around free market Western capitalism and its interests around the globe."

Denis Healey, one of the group's founders, said of it, "Those of us in Bilderberg felt we couldn't go on forever fighting one another for nothing and killing people and rendering millions homeless. So we felt that a single community throughout the world would be a good thing."

Now, that sounds reasonable, doesn't it? So why are they villains? I mean, aside from the fact they ignore, which is that only people who interact with each other fight (World War I happened at a peak in international trade and travel, so the notion that you can achieve world peace through trade and internationalism is suspect to start with.)

Well, a lot of people are not comfortable with the idea of a single community throughout the entire world. It would, after all, make existing groups obsolete. For example, if you are British, and consider Britishness inexorably linked to being white and speaking English with a certain range of accents, you might be uncomfortable with the open borders policy of the European Union, and vote to exit it.

Or, if you are American and consider whiteness and Christianity to be essential to Americanism, you might be uncomfortable with Muslims, or with allowing people from Latin America to immigrate.

There are other issues, of course. You may oppose free trade because you see too much of what you buy being made in other countries. You may oppose immigration because you think your wages are suppressed by competing with immigrants for jobs.

But the biggest problem might just be that you feel your identity is threatened, what it means to be a part of your tribe. I've described this before as ethnic panic, a psychological reaction similar to homosexual panic, in which someone snaps because a homosexual makes an advance to them and they respond violently because they are faced with their own suppressed homosexual desires.

As in homosexual panic, the person suffering from ethnic panic is faced with an identity they are uncomfortable with, for example, an identity in which you can be American, gay, brown, and Muslim. The more America looks like the world, the more the identity of American as being white and Christian is lost.

I say good riddance to it, but then, I lived abroad as a child, and have a different relationship to identity than many Americans.

Now, consider this idea in the context of Sigmund Freud's Civilization and its Discontents. Freud argued that there is a natural tension between the individual and civilization.

He said that the development of the ego in differentiating one's self from the world around us, toward an erotic interaction with the world in which we seek to maximize the pleasure principle, doing that which nature intended by doing what feels good, puts us in conflict with society. This is because we must suppress our desires in order to have a stable, working society. We cannot, for example, have sex with whomever we please, because it might not please them (or their mate.)

We sublimate our desires because we have a need for order and protection. Infants, after all, need the father's protection as much as the mother's nurturing, in the Freudian scheme of things.

Compare this to liberal theory: Humanity in the state of nature is free, but cannot exercise freedom because of all those other assholes trying to exercise their freedom on the food you wish to eat and the mate you wish to take. The only way to resolve this is with a social contract that reigns in the individual so that they may have freedom from the war of each against all, and to enforce that social contract, they need the leviathan, who has the power to enforce laws.

In short, Freud's theory is liberalism plus psychology, which gives us a way to look at the issue of identity within civilizations.

Most of the progress in civilization has consisted of a broadening definition of who belongs to our group. To a hunter-gatherer from 10,000 years ago, the notion that there could be 325 million people in the world would have been unimaginable, let along there being 325 million people in a tribe called "American." Rome became immensely powerful in its day in part because you didn't have to be from the seven hills of Rome to be a Roman citizen. Allowing those who joined them to become Roman soon meant that Rome had more people and larger armies than their enemies.

But progress can leave people feeling dislocated. Foreigners joining the tribe can make people wonder what defines the tribe. And if the new members are very different, people can suffer from unease. They can feel that the tribe is changing, and their own definition of the identity "American" (or, for that matter, Iraqi) is being left behind. Even well short of a violent reaction to ethnic panic, they may suffer a discontent with the changing face of their nation.

Of course, there are other aspects of the current discontent in our nation. Part of the reaction to immigrants is connected with the fact that white men in this country haven't seen real wages rise in real terms since about 1973. And those who have actually been getting the money -- the very rich -- have managed to avert a rebellion against themselves by blaming the "other" -- all those people who do not meet the definition of what it means to be American that so many people have in their minds.

The real reason real wages haven't risen has more to do with something I've written about before, the political movement to create inequality. The grievance is real, and seeing manufacturing go to other countries enforces the idea that globalism is the problem, but solving the problem of more and more money going to the people at the top of the income stream does not necessarily mean getting rid of globalization, and getting rid of it won't solve the problem of inequality. Getting real wages to rise is a separate question.

Both the economic grievance and the discontent over the changing identity of the nation are real problems, not just excuses for bigotry, as some liberals suppose. Granted, bigots may find common cause with people suffering from this discontent and grievance.

The line between discontent and prejudice can be hard to define. If you think you need to keep African Americans from voting to defend your identity, for example, you've crossed that line. My feeling is that both bigots and economic elites have been exploiting people with real problems to advance their agendas.

They still await real solutions.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

They want you cynical and passive

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, you can't say he didn't warn us. Donald Trump said this election was rigged, and he unexpectedly won it, so this begs the question, how did he and his party rig it?

Paul Krugman has published his own list of how the election was rigged in Trump's favor. He blamed voter suppression aimed a minority voters, Russian hackers transmitting stolen emails through Wikileaks, the FBI statements about Clinton's emails, news media's obsession with those emails, partisan media that spewed lies, and mainstream media that refused to report on policy.

What it all comes down to is this: The moneyed class who finance the Republican Party wants those who oppose them cynical, passive, and disenfranchised. They aim to disparage any leader their opposition might find to make them seem even worse than the sad parade of characters the Republican Party puts up. They've spent a generation investigating and demonizing the Clintons, never finding any criminal behavior, but subjecting them to a death of a thousand cuts, spreading the perception that there was some real wrongdoing because Republicans had made so many accusations.

How many Clinton supporters have justified their support only after first saying that she was a flawed candidate? And the real flaw was that so many accusations, never finding any wrongdoing, were leveled at her over the years.

Give him credit, Donald Trump was able to energize his base and get some low-propensity voters to the polls. But the big story is that Clinton's voters did not turn out in big enough numbers in the right places for her to win. It appears she will win the popular vote -- the 5th time in the last six elections Democrats have taken the popular vote -- but those voters were inefficiently located, so that she did not garner enough electoral college votes.

I don't think anyone thought Clinton had the charisma of President Obama, but she was running against a cartoonishly evil man who did his best to offend a wide variety of voters.

Yes, Trump energized his base, but there was more to it than that. His party has spent decades trying to make voters cynical and passive, so that they could be manipulated.

And it's working.