The Degeneration of Political Discourse

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this election season, it is the increasing degeneration of political discourse in our society. Probably everyone in America these past few months has experienced this phenomenon, and either jumped into the mudpit or turned away in disgust. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to turn.

Democracy, as an institution of social choice and self-governance through voting, relies on compromise to resolve divergent interests. This compromise, or middle ground, is often depicted as serving the interests of the “median voter” in election models. Our electoral system seeks to reward candidates or parties who can appeal to this median “center.” The idea of the centrist is one who moves away from the extremes to find common ground. The problem is that we have obliterated the center in our national politics.

How did this happen?

Some have blamed the two-party system that has divided us into red vs. blue and subsequently conquered us as we squabble over ideological trivia. Others have decried our lack of choice between the parties of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, sometimes using the catch-all term the Republicrats for the political class. Still others blame the systemic bias of the media in their desperate bid to remain politically and economically relevant in the digital world.

All of these factors have contributed to our political degeneration. However, I would say the problem is less about only having two parties than about how the parties abuse the system to divide us. I’ve written repeatedly about how the parties and the media benefit from our dysfunction and promote it every chance they get. It is true of Obama, as it is true of Congressional leaders of both parties. It is true of the mainstream media as it is of FOX News and Talk Radio. If we’re looking for relief, it won’t come from these sources.

It will come from us, and there’s the rub.

My own experience as a political commentator illustrates my point. A few weeks ago I wrote that I will vote Neither…Nor in this presidential election for reasons explained here.

Immediately I was accosted by partisans of both sides claiming I was really favoring the opposing candidate. So Democrat liberals accused me of essentially supporting Trump and Trump Republicans of putting Clinton into office. Obviously both can’t be true, but that seems beside the point.

What’s going on here is the desire to paint the issue in black and white and castigate one for joining the wrong side. Identity politics, the growing cancer on democracy, almost forces this dynamic. The tactic is truly the last resort of dirty, rotten scoundrels, but let me explain. What I’m referring to is a typical debating tactic of winning the debate by delegitimizing your opponent (not the argument, but the person). This tactic can take several different forms.

The most extreme way is to simply condemn your opponent’s moral character: a racist, a bigot, a crook. A related way is to impugn your opponent’s motivations: greedy, power monger, predator. Next up is to question one’s intelligence: ignorant, uneducated, low IQ. A more subtle, less aggressive method is to accuse one of being a willing victim of misinformation and propaganda. Sometimes this can be accurate in this corrupted media world, but it’s often used as a blanket dismissal of opinions, views, or facts one disagrees with: I see, you listen to FOX News or read the New York Times.

So, I call this the last redoubt of a scoundrel because it is a feint away from the issue that must be resolved or compromised, and the scoundrel merely realizes that the just compromise with the stronger rationale is not the one they favor. Hence the desire to intimidate and throw one’s opponent on the defensive in order to win an argument. It tosses  democratic compromise into the lion’s pit of do or die.

I’ve written here how this silly finite game of winning an election is overwhelming the more important infinite game of democracy founded on the principles of liberty and justice. Scoundrels do damage to justice and to liberty. Yet too many of us have succumbed to the emotional appeal of winning at all costs. Unless we stop this and start to legitimize our fellow citizens’ preferences (we’re really not debate opponents), our discourse will continue to degenerate and lead to ever increasing dysfunction with disastrous results.

The politicians won’t do this for us. Heaven help us on November 9, because this election is merely the canary in the coal mine.

 

 

 

The New Old World Order

I cite this article because it is quite insightful of the failed political culture in the modern democratic West and particularly the failures of US party elites. It also exposes the larger historical forces at work that suggest the road forward may be rather rocky.

For me this 2016 moment resonates with historical analogies such as the Savonarolan episode in Renaissance Florence that I wrote about in The City of Man, the dissolution of the Weimar Republic in 1930s Germany, and the Iranian Fundamentalist Revolution in 1979. We haven’t reached those precipices yet, but all arrows point in that direction unless we come to grips with our current failures of both modern liberalism and neo-conservatism.

Donald Trump Does Have Ideas—and We’d Better Pay Attention to Them

The post-1989 world order is unraveling. Here are 6 ideas Trump has to replace it.

Politico, September 15, 2016

Ideas really don’t come along that often. Already in 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that in America, “ideas are a sort of mental dust,” that float about us but seldom cohere or hold our attention. For ideas to take hold, they need to be comprehensive and organizing; they need to order people’s experience of themselves and of their world. In 20th-century America, there were only a few ideas: the Progressivism of Wilson; Roosevelt’s New Deal; the Containment Doctrine of Truman; Johnson’s War on Poverty; Reagan’s audacious claim that the Cold War could be won; and finally, the post-1989 order rooted in “globalization” and “identity politics,” which seems to be unraveling before our ey.es.

Yes, Donald Trump is implicated in that unraveling, cavalierly undermining decades worth of social and political certainties with his rapid-fire Twitter account and persona that only the borough of Queens can produce. But so is Bernie Sanders. And so is Brexit. And so are the growing rumblings in Europe, which are all the more dangerous because there is no exit strategy if the European Union proves unsustainable. It is not so much that there are no new ideas for us to consider in 2016; it is more that the old ones are being taken apart without a clear understanding of what comes next. 2016 is the year of mental dust, where notions that stand apart from the post-1989 order don’t fully cohere. The 2016 election will be the first—but not last—test of whether they can.
Story Continued Below

If you listen closely to Trump, you’ll hear a direct repudiation of the system of globalization and identity politics that has defined the world order since the Cold War. There are, in fact, six specific ideas that he has either blurted out or thinly buried in his rhetoric: (1) borders matter; (2) immigration policy matters; (3) national interests, not so-called universal interests, matter; (4) entrepreneurship matters; (5) decentralization matters; (6) PC speech—without which identity politics is inconceivable—must be repudiated.

These six ideas together point to an end to the unstable experiment with supra- and sub-national sovereignty that many of our elites have guided us toward, siren-like, since 1989. That is what the Trump campaign, ghastly though it may at times be, leads us toward: A future where states matter. A future where people are citizens, working together toward (bourgeois) improvement of their lot. His ideas do not yet fully cohere. They are a bit too much like mental dust that has yet to come together. But they can come together. And Trump is the first American candidate to bring some coherence to them, however raucous his formulations have been.

***

(Blog Note: It’s Not about Trump.)

Most of the commentary about Trump has treated him as if he is a one-off, as someone who has emerged because of the peculiar coincidence of his larger-than-life self-absorption and the advent of social media platforms that encourage it. When the world becomes a theater for soliloquy and self-aggrandizement, what else are we to expect?
But the Trump-as-one-off argument begins to fall apart when we think about what else happened in politics this year. First of all, Trump is not alone. If he alone had emerged—if there were no Bernie Sanders, no Brexit, no crisis in the EU—it would be justifiable to pay attention only to his peculiarities and to the oddities of the moment. But with these other uprisings occurring this year, it’s harder to dismiss Trump as a historical quirk.

Furthermore, if he had been just a one-off, surely the Republican Party would have been able to contain him, even co-opt him for its own purposes. After all, doesn’t the party decide? The Republican Party is not a one, however, it is a many. William F. Buckley Jr. and others invented the cultural conservatism portion of the party in the 1950s, with the turn to the traditionalism of Edmund Burke; the other big portion of the party adheres to the free-market conservatism of Friedrich Hayek. The third leg of the Republican Party stool, added during the Reagan years, includes evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics of the sort who were still unsure of the implications of Vatican II. To Burke and Hayek, then, add the names John Calvin and Aristotle/Thomas Aquinas. Anyone who really reads these figures knows that the tension between them is palpable. For a time, the three GOP factions were able to form an alliance against Communism abroad and against Progressivism at home. But after the Cold War ended, Communism withered and the culture wars were lost, there has been very little to keep the partnership together. And if it hadn’t been Trump, sooner or later someone else was going to come along and reveal the Republican Party’s inner fault lines. Trump alone might have been the catalyst, but the different factions of the GOP who quickly split over him were more than happy to oblige.

There is another reason why the Republican Party could not contain Trump, a perhaps deeper reason. Michael Oakeshott, an under-read political thinker in the mid-20th century, remarked in his exquisite essay, “Rationalism in Politics,” that one of the more pathological notions of our age is that political life can be understood in terms of “principles” that must be applied to circumstances. Politics-as-engineering, if you will. Republicans themselves succumbed to this notion, and members of the rank and file have noticed. Republicans stood for “the principles of the constitution,” for “the principles of the free market,” etc. The problem with standing for principles is that it allows you to remain unsullied by the political fray, to stand back and wait until yet another presidential election cycle when “our principles” can perhaps be applied. And if we lose, it’s OK, because we still have “our principles.” What Trump has been able to seize upon is growing dissatisfaction with this endless deferral, the sociological arrangement for which looks like comfortable Inside-the-Beltway Republicans defending “principles” and rank-and-file Republicans far from Washington-Babylon watching in horror and disgust.

Any number of commentators (and prominent Republican Party members) have said that Trump is an anti-ideas candidate. If we are serious about understanding our political moment, we have to be very clear about what this can mean. It can mean Trump’s administration will involve the-politics-of-will, so to speak; that the only thing that will matter in government will be what Trump demands. Or, it can mean that Trump is not a candidate who believes in “principles” at all. This is probably the more accurate usage. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he is unprincipled; it means rather that he doesn’t believe that yet another policy paper based on conservative “principles” is going to save either America or the Republican Party. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville was clear that the spirit of democracy is not made possible by great ideas (and certainly not by policy papers), but rather by practical, hands-on experience with self-governance. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mystical musings in his essay, “Experience,” corroborate this. American democracy will not be rejuvenated by yet another policy paper from the Inside-the-Beltway gang. What I am not saying here is that Trump has the wisdom of an Oakeshott, a Tocqueville or an Emerson. What I am saying is that Trump is that quintessentially American figure, hated by intellectuals on both sides of the aisle and on the other side of the Atlantic, who doesn’t start with a “plan,” but rather gets himself in the thick of things and then moves outward to a workable idea—not a “principled” one—that can address the problem at hand, but which goes no further. That’s what American businessmen and women do. (And, if popular culture is a reliable guide to America, it is what Han Solo always does in Star Wars movies.) We would do well not to forget that the only school of philosophy developed in America has been Pragmatism. This second meaning of being an anti-ideas candidate is consonant with it.

If, as some have said, Trump’s only idea is, “I can solve it,” then we are in real trouble. The difficulty, of course, is that in this new, Trumpean moment when politics is unabashed rhetoric, it is very difficult to discern the direction a Trump administration will take us. Will he be the tyrant some fear, or the pragmatist that is needed?

It’s not unreasonable to think the latter. This is because, against the backdrop of post-1989 ideas, the Trump campaign does indeed have a nascent coherence. “Globalization” and “identity politics” are a remarkable configuration of ideas, which have sustained America, and much of the rest of the world, since 1989. With a historical eye—dating back to the formal acceptance of the state-system with the treaty of Westphalia in 1648—we see what is so remarkable about this configuration: It presumes that sovereignty rests not with the state, but with supra-national organizations—NAFTA, WTO, the U.N., the EU, the IMF, etc.—and with subnational sovereign sites that we name with the term “identity.” So inscribed in our post-1989 vernacular is the idea of “identity” that we can scarcely imagine ourselves without reference to our racial, gender, ethnic, national, religious and/or tribal “identity.” Once, we aspired to be citizens who abided by the rule of law prescribed within a territory; now we have sovereign “identities,” and wander aimlessly in a world without borders, with our gadgets in hand to distract us, and our polemics in mind to repudiate the disbelievers.

What, exactly, is the flaw with this remarkable post-1989 configuration of ideas? When you start thinking in terms of management by global elites at the trans-state level and homeless selves at the substate level that seek, but never really find, comfort in their “identities,” the consequences are significant: Slow growth rates (propped up by debt-financing) and isolated citizens who lose interest in building a world together. Then of course, there’s the rampant crony-capitalism that arises when, in the name of eliminating “global risk” and providing various forms of “security,” the collusion between ever-growing state bureaucracies and behemoth global corporations creates a permanent class of winners and losers. Hence, the huge disparities of wealth we see in the world today.

The post-1989 order of things fails to recognize that the state matters, and engaged citizens matter. The state is the largest possible unit of organization that allows for the political liberty and economic improvement of its citizens, in the long term. This arrangement entails competition, risk, success and failure. But it does lead to growth, citizen-involvement, and if not a full measure of happiness, then at least the satisfactions that competence and merit matter.

Trump, then, with his promise of a future in which the integrity of the state matters, and where citizens identify with the state because they have a stake in it rather than with identity-driven subgroups, proposes a satisfying alternative.

This is also why it would be a big mistake to underestimate Trump and the ideas he represents during this election. In the pages of the current issue of POLITICO Magazine, one author writes: “The Trump phenomenon is about cultural resentment, anger and most of all Trump. It’s primal-scream politics, a middle finger pointed at The Other, a nostalgia for a man-cave America where white dudes didn’t have to be so politically correct.”
I have no doubt that right now, somewhere in America (outside the Beltway), there are self-congratulatory men, probably white, huddled together in some smoky man-cave, with “Make America Great Again” placards on their John-Deere-tractor-mowed lawns.
But do not mistake the part for the whole. What is going on is that “globalization-and-identity-politics-speak” is being boldly challenged. Inside the Beltway, along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, there is scarcely any evidence of this challenge. There are people in those places who will vote for Trump, but they dare not say it, for fear of ostracism. They think that identity politics has gone too far, or that if it hasn’t yet gone too far, there is no principled place where it must stop. They believe that the state can’t be our only large-scale political unit, but they see that on the post-1989 model, there will, finally, be no place for the state. Out beyond this hermetically sealed bicoastal consensus, there are Trump placards everywhere, not because citizens are racists or homophobes or some other vermin that needs to be eradicated, but because there is little evidence in their own lives that this vast post-1989 experiment with “globalization” and identity politics has done them much good.

The opposition to the post-1989 order is not just happening here in America; it is happening nearly everywhere. The Brexit vote stunned only those who believe in their bones that the very arc of history ends with “globalization” and identity politics.
The worry is that this powerful, growing disaffection with the status quo—both within Europe and elsewhere—will devolve into nefarious nationalism based on race, ethnicity or religion. To combat this, we are going to have to find constructive ways to build a new set of ideas around a very old set of ideas about sovereignty—namely, that the state and the citizens inside it matter. If we don’t find a way to base nationalism on a healthy understanding of what a liberal state is and what it does and expects from citizens to make it work well, dark nationalism, based on blood and religion, will prevail—again.
Nothing lasts forever. Is that not the mantra of the left? Why, then, would the ideas of globalization and identity politics not share the fate of all ideas that have their day then get tossed into the dust-bin of history?

***
Of course, when new ideas take hold, old institutional arrangements face upheaval or implosion. There is no post-election scenario in which the Republican Party as we knew it prior to Trump remains intact. The Republicans who vote for Hillary Clinton will not be forgotten by those who think Trump is the one chance Republicans have to stop “globalization-and-identity-politics-speak” cold in its tracks. And neither will Inside-the-Beltway Republicans forget those in their party who are about to pull the lever for Trump. One can say that Trump has revealed what can be called The Aristotle Problem in the Republican Party. Almost every cultural conservative with whom I have spoken recently loves Aristotle and hates Trump. That is because on Aristotelian grounds, Trump lacks character, moderation, propriety and magnanimity. He is, as they put it, “unfit to serve.” The sublime paradox is that Republican heirs of Aristotle refuse to vote for Trump, but will vote for Clinton and her politically left-ish ideas that, while very much adopted to the American political landscape, trace their roots to Marx and to Nietzsche. Amazingly, cultural conservatives who have long blamed Marx and Nietzsche (and German philosophy as a whole) for the decay of the modern world would now rather not vote for an American who expressly opposes Marx and Nietzsche’s ideas! In the battle between Athens, Berlin and, well, the borough of Queens, they prefer Athens first, Berlin second and Queens not at all. The Aristotle Problem shows why these two groups—the #NeverTrumpers and the current Republicans who will vote for Trump—will never be reconciled.

There are, then, two developments we are likely to see going forward. First, cultural conservatives will seriously consider a political “Benedict Option,” dropping out of the Republican Party and forming a like-minded Book Group, unconcerned with winning elections and very concerned with maintaining their “principles.” Their fidelity is to Aristotle rather than to winning the battle for the political soul of America. The economic conservatives, meanwhile, will be urged to stay within the party—provided they focus on the problem of increasing the wealth of citizens within the state.

The other development, barely talked about, is very interesting and already underway, inside the Trump campaign. It involves the effort to convince Americans as a whole that they are not well-served by thinking of themselves as members of different “identity groups” who are owed a debt that—surprise!—Very White Progressives on the left will pay them if they loyally vote for the Democratic Party. The Maginot Line the Democratic Party has drawn purports to include on its side, African-Americans, Hispanics, gays, Muslims and women. (Thus, the lack of embarrassment, really, about the “basket of deplorables” reference to Trump supporters.) To its credit, the Democratic Party has made the convincing case, really since the Progressive Era in the early part of the 20th century, that the strong state is needed to rearrange the economy and society, so that citizens may have justice. Those who vote for the Democratic Party today are not just offered government program assistance, they are offered political protections and encouragements for social arrangements of one sort or another that might not otherwise emerge.

But where does this use of political power to rearrange the economy and society end? Continue using political power in the service of “identity politics” to reshape the economy and society and eventually both of them will become so enfeebled that they no longer work at all. The result will not be greater liberty for the oppressed, it will be the tyranny of the state over all. Trump does have sympathies for a strong state; but correctly or incorrectly, he has managed to convince his supporters that a more independent economy and society matters. In such an arrangement, citizens see their first support as the institutions of society (the family, religion, civic associations), their second support as a relatively free market, and their third support as the state, whose real job is to defend the country from foreign threats. Under these arrangements, citizens do not look upward to the state to confirm, fortify and support their “identities.” Rather, they look outward to their neighbor, who they must trust to build a world together. Only when the spell of identity politics is broken can this older, properly liberal, understanding take hold. That is why Trump is suggesting to these so-called identity groups that there is an alternative to the post-1989 worldview that Clinton and the Democratic Party are still pushing.

Now that Trump has disrupted the Republican Party beyond repair, the success of the future Republican Party will hang on whether Americans come to see themselves as American citizens before they see themselves as bearers of this or that “identity.” The Very White Progressives who run the Democratic Party have an abiding interest in the latter narrative, because holding on to support of entire identity groups helps them win elections. But I do not think it can be successful much longer, in part because it is predicated on the continual growth of government, which only the debt-financing can support. Our debt-financed binge is over, or it will be soon. The canary in the coal mine—now starting to sing—is the African-American community, which has, as a whole, been betrayed by a Democratic Party that promises through government largesse that its burden shall be eased. Over the past half-century nothing has been further from the truth, especially in high-density inner-city regions. While it receives little media attention, there are African-Americans who are dubious about the arrangement by which the Democratic Party expects them to abide. A simultaneously serious and humorous example of this is the long train of videos posted on YouTube by “Diamond and Silk.” To be sure, the current polls show that Trump has abysmal ratings among minorities. If he wins the election, he will have to succeed in convincing them that he offers an alternative to permanent government assistance and identity politics consciousness-raising that, in the end, does them little good; and that through the alternative he offers there is a hope of assimilation into the middle class. A tall order, to be sure.

These observations are not to be confused as a ringing endorsement for a Republican Party that does not yet exist, and perhaps never will exist. But they are warning, of sorts, about impending changes that cannot be laughed off. The Republicans have at least been given a gift, in the disruption caused by Trump. The old alliances within it were held together by a geopolitical fact-on-the-ground that no longer exists: the Cold War. Now long behind us, a new geopolitical moment, where states once again matter, demands new alliances and new ideas. With the defeat of Bernie Sanders in the primaries, Democrats have been denied their gift, and will lumber on, this 2016, with “globalization-and-identity-politics-speak,” hoping to defend the world order that is predicated on it. If Sanders had won, the Democrats would have put down their identity politics narrative and returned to claims about “class” and class consciousness; they would have put down the banner of Nietzsche and taken up the banner of Marx, again. And that would have been interesting! Alas, here we are, with, on the one hand, tired old post-1989 ideas in the Democratic Party searching for one more chance to prove that they remain vibrant and adequate to the problems at hand; and on the other, seemingly strange, ideas that swirl around us like mental dust waiting to coalesce.

 

Why I Will Vote Neither…Nor…

Halfway through the presidential primary season I decided I would not and could not conscientiously vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. As a political scientist, this was not an uninformed decision. I have been observing, and studying, the degeneration of American party politics for the past two decades and nothing has reversed this trend.

Today, faced with the reality that these are the two major party nominees, I have carefully reconsidered my position but have come to the same conclusion. I do not believe Trump has the temperament, nor do I feel Clinton has the integrity, while neither display the requisite political skills to lead this nation.

So what is one to do? Flip a coin and hold one’s nose? However, as I will argue here, there is a meaningful alternative.

My decision to vote neither-nor is based on several assumptions which all voters may not share. First, I equally disapprove of both presidential candidates offered up by the Democrat and Republican parties. You may not share that sentiment and thus should vote your conscience. (BTW, if you are truly enamored of the status-quo, perhaps you should cast a write-in vote for Ben Bernanke. Our current economic fate has little to do with Obama, Clinton, or the Congress. In geopolitics it seems we’ve just blindly bumbled along.)

Second, I live in a state where the Electoral College votes are not really in contention. More simply, I live in CA. Thus whether I vote for Trump or Clinton will have no impact on the outcome and thus can be considered a wasted vote. Unless you live in a closely contested swing state, such as FL, PA, or OH, your vote for either candidate is also a meaningless vote.

But do neither-nor voters really have a meaningless say in this election? Only if you hold your nose and vote for one of the above. If you are dissatisfied with the choices presented, this may be the first time in our lifetimes that an alternative vote has meaning – and it matters not which alternative you prefer. An abstention, or a vote for Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein, or a write-in for Mickey Mouse or Bernie Sanders is a protest vote – a vote that neither major party can count on and must respond to as the tally grows. What is the signal sent if Clinton and Trump both get 30% of the vote and 40% is captured by a neither-nor protest? How will either President-elect govern with such a dearth of public support? It’s political suicide to ignore upwards of 70% of the country.

This strategy is a slightly different argument than support for a 3rd party. A 3rd party can’t win unless it displaces one of the two major parties. Thus it’s success depends on the failure of one of those parties. However, a protest vote is different in that left and right anti-establishment groups coalesce on their dissatisfaction with the status quo. In other words, Sanders and Tea Party voters can combine as a force to influence the two major parties.

Others may apply a different logic. Some will claim a protest vote is an irresponsible waste of a vote, but I consider voting against one’s conscience while knowing better is the true irresponsible action. (A more erudite exposition of my sentiments was written by Jonah Goldberg at National Review, but his is an internecine conflict on the right. One wonders what the leftist Bernie Sanders voters are thinking at this point.)

Our society’s future is more important than an emotional partisan showdown. Things won’t change unless we change from the ground up. With enough protest votes, perhaps the Washington establishment will finally have to respond to a majority of Americans voicing dissatisfaction with the political status-quo.

2016: Bernie vs. The Donald? Missing the Message.

SandersTrump

Most Americans are reduced to the passive role of spectators, fans, groupies. Or they are persuaded not to bother with politics. An elaborate class of professional technicians has taken charge of electoral politics—campaign managers and advertisers, pollsters, fundraisers, crowd organizers. These professionals, one could say, manage the passions or passivity of voters. They shape the content of what citizens know—and shape their ignorance too.

The ongoing circus of the presidential partisan primaries has voters fretting that our choices may whittle down to a contest between the bombastic Donald Trump vs. the radical socialist Bernie Sanders. I wouldn’t worry so much about that. Instead I would worry more about the underlying message regarding American “politics as usual.”

Below is an essay written by the journalist and author William Greider published in The Nation that reviews a book by Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. Greider correctly applies this history of American populism to the modern movement that is the deeper current under the froth created by Trump and Sanders.

This movement, which is actually a gradual disenfranchisement of the American voter marked by the decline of party affiliation (as Greider points out, “Voters who stay home on Election Day are now by far the ‘largest’ political party”), is a real threat to the “politics as usual” of both the Democrats and the Republicans. And this is how it should be.

The resilience of American democracy is found in the pressures of the system to adapt to change or die. This does not imply the rise of third parties, except to displace one of the two major parties, either of which could easily suffer that fate. But the genius of our electoral two-party system has turned out to reinforce this need to adapt or die.

Multi-party systems fracture into uncompromisable positions that lead to instability in national government and over-dependence on fragile coalitions that often empower narrow interests at the margin. A two-party winner-take-all system forces parties to the center of voters’ demands in order to capture a majority. This is a good thing in a large pluralistic polity like we have in the U.S.

But, as Greider clearly points out, that doesn’t mean that democratic system cannot breakdown under this electoral design. American politics has become unresponsive to voter demands and needs for a variety of reasons. This gives rise to the anti-establishment tenor of modern movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy groups. These anti-establishment groups have more in common than in opposition, but the establishment seeks only to divide and conquer its opposition in order to continue to enjoy the spoils.

Goodwyn also wisely points out that for democracy to work, voters do not need to be perfectly informed, they only cannot be misinformed with a systemic bias. Unfortunately, the media today can promote that systemic bias, which is why it is failing us. This applies to mainstream as well as alternative media. In other words, we’re not getting the unvarnished objective truth from ABC, CBS, NBC, or FOX; and not from the NY TImes, Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. And certainly not The Huffington Post or TownHall. We’re getting what appeals to each media channel’s targeted political audience.

On an optimistic note, the party “establishment” candidate that first discovers how to appeal to the disaffected and brings them back into the party fold by adapting to their demands and compromising the establishment party’s platform will be successful in future elections. And this is how it should be. Greider suspects we’re not quite there yet, but the momentum has been building for about 20 years now (maybe 40+). But it’s highly unlikely we will be led into the future by the likes of an angry Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders.

Bernie, Donald, and the Promise of Populism

Both candidates have been mislabeled as populists. The movement of that name was a genuine people’s rebellion that reinvigorated democracy. We can do it again.

By William Greider

September 21, 2015

The New Yorker recently attempted to explain two “populists” running for president, the only candidates generating huge and enthusiastic audiences. Instead, the article’s snide tone reflected the nearsightedness of cosmopolitan elites. Both candidates were mislabeled as “populist.” Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist; Donald Trump is a trash-talking billionaire. But the magazine also mangled the true historical meaning of populism.

The writer seemed to be channeling Richard Hofstadter, the Columbia historian who back in the 1960s famously put down populism and other rebellious movements as “the paranoid style in American politics.” People are irrational, Hofstadter explained, driven by delusional fears and conspiracy theories. Not to be trusted with governing power.

Class condescension is as old as American democracy and is back in vogue this season, thanks mainly to the plutocrat with big hair. Only, Donald Trump turned “populist” anger upside down. He’s a super-rich guy ridiculing the “stupid” people in government and bragging about how he and his fellow billionaires buy politicians to get free stuff from government. Sanders, meanwhile, is plowing a parallel furrow of dissent—a substantive and serious program for reform.

But neither fits the label “populist” because they are both working within the established order. By definition, populism requires plain people in rebellion, organizing themselves to go up against the reigning powers. Major pushback from fed-up people is not present—not yet anyway—but the great disturbances already roiling party politics suggest that the political status quo is vulnerable to more upheavals, particularly if timidity and stalemate continue to suppress meaningful change.

It depends, first, on whether the 2016 results promise real changes in economics and social equity and/or convince people they have to dump both parties and attempt power-seeking politics of their own. This is a tender moment for the two-party system.

Elites naturally fear popular uprisings, but rebellion can be good for democracy. Even if they fail, self-generated citizen insurgencies can ventilate the musty corridors of government and compel governing parties to change or die. A century ago, the original Populists provoked fright and ridicule in establishment circles on a far more threatening scale. We are not there yet. But don’t count it out if timidity wins the election next year and politics continues to run away from fundamental questions.

The People’s Party in the last decades of the 19th century was self-organized by scattered groups of distressed farmers. It grew rapidly across the South and West to oppose the powerful forces—banks, railroads, industrial corporations—destroying small, independent producers. The farmers realized the federal government was an active accomplice in their economic destruction. There was nothing delusional about their alarm and anger. It was driven by a ruinous deflation of farm prices for three decades—hard money that rewarded capital and crushed producers.

The agrarian revolt set out audaciously to win power by winning elections—electing Populist governors, representatives, and senators—hoping ultimately to elect the People’s President. They failed, of course, but their legacy was profound. These self-taught citizens developed original ideas for governing the economy, business, and banking. They envisioned a central bank to regulate money and credit that would advance equality, serving people and producers rather than the fortunes of New York bankers. The Populist vision was the road not taken.

The New York Times called them “slime.” (This magazine was pretty bad too, as The Nation’s 1896 attack on William Jennings Bryan shows.) It denounced their proposal as “one of the wildest and most fantastic projects ever seriously proposed.” Yet years later, John Maynard Keynes saluted the American Populists as “a brave army of heretics.” They failed to gain power, but Keynes recognized that their economic analysis anticipated his own. Many of the original Populist proposals were eventually enacted as New Deal reforms.

For the true history, read Lawrence Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. The book profoundly altered my understanding of American history and democracy (the excellent shorter version, widely available in paperback, is titled The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America). Goodwyn’s account provides powerful rebuttal to pessimism and resignation. His unsentimental narrative keeps alive the possibility of deep structural reforms in politics and government.

Democratic Promise puts people back at the center of the story—ordinary people who tried, against all odds, to act like self-directed citizens, actively participating in self-government. Goodwyn suggested that authentic democracy remains possible—not easy or assured, only possible—if people rediscover their voice and potential power.

In modern political culture, the idea of this deeper democracy has been hollowed out, obliterated. The promise endures, insofar as we have regular elections to select officeholders, but that ritual normally does very little to alter actual power relationships. And people know this.

Most Americans are reduced to the passive role of spectators, fans, groupies. Or they are persuaded not to bother with politics. An elaborate class of professional technicians has taken charge of electoral politics—campaign managers and advertisers, pollsters, fundraisers, crowd organizers. These professionals, one could say, manage the passions or passivity of voters. They shape the content of what citizens know—and shape their ignorance too.

The process of manipulating the electorate is enormously expensive, and mostly paid for by private donations. Donors naturally expect to influence the content of the messages, so campaigns are nearly always biased in favor of moneyed interests and affluent citizens. The ultimate purpose of campaigns is thus not educating citizens; it is electing or defeating politicians. The result of this narrow-form democracy is the steadily shrinking electorate. Voters who stay home on Election Day are now by far the “largest” political party.

The critical claim in Goodwyn’s analysis is that ordinary people are both capable of participating more directly in self-government and that their engagement is necessary for a genuinely functioning democracy. Otherwise, politics produces a closely held management system with control concentrated at the top. It makes distant decisions too opaque for ordinary citizens to understand or influence, much less control. This deformity roughly resembles our current conditions. Governing elites typically fault the people for their ignorance, and many discouraged citizens internalize the blame.

But Goodwyn insisted that ordinary people, though discouraged from active citizenship, have essential knowledge—knowledge they haven’t learned from books or newspapers. Their knowledge is crucial for balanced self-government. Because ordinary Americans, regardless of status or education, know things the authorities did not teach them. They frequently know things that contradict the governing experts, and they learn them before elected representatives do.

Where do people get this distinctive knowledge? From life itself, as Goodwyn explained. Of course, people are fallible and prone to error, false enthusiasm, and fears. But so are elected politicians. So are the corporate CEOs and investment bankers, including the ones who led the country over a cliff in 2008 and crashed the middle class.

The popular anger exploding in the run-up to 2016 baffled press and political leaders. They would not have been surprised if they had listened more respectfully to the broad ranks of citizens during the past three decades. Working people knew the “American dream” was falling apart. They knew because it was happening to them. They told their stories in great detail to anyone who would listen (as a young reporter I heard those stories from auto workers, steel workers, machinists, debt-burdened families, and other victims, trying to hang on and losing the struggle).

With brave exceptions, politicians in both parties turned their backs on the cries of distress. Learned economists assured political leaders that what working people saw happening in their neighborhoods wasn’t the real story. Over time, they predicted, prosperity would reach everyone and people would agree that deindustrialization was a good thing, a necessary evolution in the economy. It didn’t happen, and neither party has come clean on its failure.

I think that’s where the anger comes from. There is widespread feeling across ideological and partisan divides not only that government failed to ensure economic prosperity and security but also that both political parties denied or ignored what average working stiffs knew and were trying to tell the politicians. Many believe they were betrayed, that the politicians lied.

Modern government lost its sense of balance and credibility for many reasons, but partly because authorities distanced themselves from the common-sense and popular knowledge of ordinary Americans. This disconnect permeates government and politics, and it’s not always due to corporate greed or corruption. Sometimes, it is due to plain ignorance.

It’s true that we have not arrived at a new “populist moment”—not yet. But the political situation looks combustible, and perhaps more promising than the usual cynicism and resignation will recognize. Could citizens come out of their passivity and restart the fight for authentic self-government? Sounds fanciful, I know, but consider this: If the original Populists could organize millions to overcome their handicaps, people should be able to do the same now. After all, the Populists didn’t even have telephones, much less e-mail.

We are already deep into a stormy new era of democratizing technologies—people are getting the power to control their own communications—and inventive new channels are flowing freely from citizens themselves.

This new condition potentially destabilizes the old politics. I think it is a major factor in generating the dizziness of this election season. Among other things, it drastically reduces the cost of making political connections, of organizing across long distances and social divisions. That itself could become an insurrectionary virtue. It might even dilute the political domination of the 1 Percent, the corporations and billionaires.

I see possibilities for meaningful unrest ahead.

SandersTrump2

We’ve All Been Trumped

silver-feautre-trumptroll-1

Regardless of how one feels about Donald Trump and his candidacy, the media suggest his presidential chances are slim to none. But nevertheless, we can see from this chart and the explanation offered below (by 538’s Nate Silver) why we get a steady daily diet of Trumpisms. Now, a responsible press would prioritize coverage of the likely nominees and focus on Bush, Rubio, and Walker. Instead, they pander to celebrity and controversy in an attempt to appeal to the scandal obsessions of their target audience, thereby surviving financially. These days the Fourth Estate does not work as intended and this is partly what drives our dysfunctional electoral politics.

“A troll,” according to one definition, “is a person who sows discord … by starting arguments or upsetting people … with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”

The goal of the troll is to provoke a reaction by any means necessary. Trolls thrive in communities that are open and democratic (they wouldn’t be invited into a discussion otherwise) and which operate in presumed good faith (there need to be some standards of decorum to offend). Presidential nomination contests are highly susceptible to trolling, therefore. Access is fairly open: There’s no longer much of a filter between the campaigns, the media, and the public. And it’s comically easy to provoke a reaction. How many times between now and next November will we hear that a candidate’s statement is “offensive,” whether or not it really is?

Trolls operate on the principle that negative attention is better than none. In fact, the troll may feed off the negative attention, claiming it makes him a victim and proves that everyone is out to get him.

Sound like any presidential candidates you know?

There’s a notion that Donald Trump’s recent rise in Republican polls is a media-driven creation. That explanation isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s incomplete. It skims over the complex interactions between the media, the public and the candidates, which can produce booms and busts of attention. And it ignores how skilled trolls like Trump can exploit the process to their benefit.

Let’s look at some data. In the chart below, I’ve tracked how media coverage has been divided among the Republican candidates over roughly the past month (the data covers June 14 through July 12), according to article counts on Google News. In turn, I’ve shown the share of Google searches for each candidate over the same period. The data was provided to FiveThirtyEight by Google but should closely match what you’ll get by searching on Google Trends or Google News yourself.

Even before his imbecilic comments about Sen. John McCain this weekend, which came too recently to be included in this data, Trump was receiving far more media attention than any other Republican. Based on Google News, 46 percent of the media coverage of the GOP campaign over the past month was directed toward Trump, more than for Jeb Bush (13 percent), Chris Christie (9 percent), Scott Walker (8 percent), Bobby Jindal (6 percent), Ted Cruz (4 percent) and Marco Rubio (4 percent) combined.

And yet, the public is perhaps even more obsessed with Trump. Among the GOP candidates, he represented 62 percent of the Google search traffic over the past month, having been searched for more than six times as often as second-place Bush.

So if the press were going purely by public demand, there might be even more Trump coverage. Instead, the amount of press coverage that each candidate has received has been modulated by the media’s perception of how likely each is to win the nomination.

The chart I showed you above contained data on each GOP candidate’s chances of winning the nomination, according to the prediction market Betfair.1 Candidates who are perceived as having a credible chance to win the nomination — like Bush, Walker, and Rubio — receive proportionally more media attention than public attention. The reverse is true for candidates who are seen by the press as long shots, such as Rand Paul and Ben Carson.2

As is usually the case, however, life gets more complicated when we go from identifying correlations to trying to understand their causes. As we’ve seen, press coverage is highly correlated with the level of public interest in a candidate and the candidate’s perceived chances of winning the nomination. It could be, however, that public attention to a candidate is triggered by media coverage rather than the other way around. Likewise, while the media might be fairly sophisticated at identifying which candidates are more likely to win and provide correspondingly more coverage of them, the media can also produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. Being ignored by the media or labeled as a loser can make it hard for a candidate to attract money, endorsements and other resources that might allow them to make a comeback.

We can aspire to determine causality by comparing the timing of Google News and Google search hits for a candidate. If the press drives public interest in the candidates, spikes in Google News should precede spikes in Google searches. If instead the press is reacting to the public, Google News hits will lag search.

Unfortunately, this isn’t so easy to determine. Shifts in public and media attention tend to occur at about the same time — as you can see, for example, in the graphic below, which compares Trump’s Google News and Google search traffic from week to week.

silver-feautre-trumptroll-2

But a regression analysis — you can read the gory details in the footnotes3 — suggests that press attention both leads and lags public attention to the candidates. This makes a lot of sense. The public can take cues from the media about which candidates to pay attention to. But the media also gets a lot of feedback from the public. Or to put it more cynically: If Trump-related stories are piling up lots of pageviews and Trump-related TV segments get good ratings, then guess what? You’re probably going to see more of them.4

This creates the possibility of a feedback loop. Some event sparks a news story about a candidate, which triggers more public attention, which encourages yet more media attention — and so on. It may help to explain why we’ve repeatedly seen the so-called “discovery, scrutiny and decline” cycle in the past two primary campaigns for candidates like Trump, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain — bursts of attention that coincide with spikes in the polls but then fade or even burst after several weeks.

These “bounces” aren’t entirely new. Presidential candidates usually get a temporary bounce in support following their party’s convention, for example. But the polls in the 2012 Republican campaign were far more volatile than those in any previous nomination race. We’re really just getting started in 2016, but it’s been pretty wild as well. Bounces that might have happened once in a cycle now seem to occur all the time.

So if these spikes are media-driven, they seem to be driven by some particularly modern features of the media landscape. Social media allows candidates to make news without the filter of the press. It may also encourage groupthink among and between reporters and readers, however. And access to real-time traffic statistics can mean that everyone is writing the same “takes” and chasing the same eyeballs at once. Is the tyranny of the Twitter mob better or worse than the “Boys on the Bus” model of a group of (mostly white, male, upper-middle-class, left-of-center) reporters deigning to determine what’s news and what isn’t? I don’t know, but it’s certainly different. And it seems to be producing a higher velocity of movement in the polls and in the tenor of media coverage.

Trolls are skilled at taking advantage of this landscape and making the news cycle feed on its own tail, accelerating the feedback loop and producing particularly large bounces and busts in the polls. In 2012, Gingrich’s whole strategy seemed to involve trolling the media, and he went through a couple of boom-and-bust cycles in polls. In 2008, Sarah Palin, though beloved by Republicans, was brilliant at trolling Democrats and the media. She was extremely popular at first, although her popularity was ultimately short-lived.

Trump has taken trolling to the next level by being willing to offend members of his own party. Ordinarily, this would be a counterproductive strategy. In a 16-candidate field, however, you can be in first place with 15 or 20 percent of the vote — even if the other 80 or 85 percent of voters hate your guts.

In the long run — as our experience with past trolls shows — Trump’s support will probably fade. Or at least, given his high unfavorable ratings, it will plateau, and other candidates will surpass him as the rest of the field consolidates.

It’s much harder to say what will happen to Trump’s polling in the near term, however. That’s in part because it’s hard to say exactly what was driving his support in the first place. Trump wasn’t doing especially well with tea party voters or with any other identifiable group of Republicans. My guess is that his support reflected a combination of (i) low-information voters who recognized his name and (ii) voters who share Trump’s disdain for the trappings of the political establishment and (iii) voters who were treating him as an inside joke or a protest vote, making him vaguely like an American equivalent of Beppe Grillo. None of them will necessarily be deterred from declaring their support for him because of his comments about McCain. Some of them might even be encouraged.

But what if you want Trump to go away now?

The media isn’t going to stop paying attention to Trump. Nor should it, really: His candidacy is a political story and not just “entertainment.”5

Republicans are another matter, however. They might rightly be concerned that Trump is tarnishing their brand image or at least meddling with their already-challenging task of choosing a candidate. Other Republicans should resist the temptation to extend the news cycle by firing back at him, however — even when what he says is genuinely offensive.6

After 12 years of writing on the Internet, I’ve learned that the old adage is true. Don’t feed the troll. The only way to kill a troll like Trump is to deprive him of attention.

Footnotes

  1. The data was taken from PredictWise as of early Sunday afternoon. I’d quibble with some of Betfair’s probabilities: I don’t think there should be such a large gap between Bush (who Betfair has at 39 percent to win the nomination) and the next two candidates, Walker and Rubio. And giving Trump a 5 percent chance of winning the nomination seems extremely generous. But Betfair data reflects market prices and is therefore a pretty good approximation of the consensus view about the viability of each candidate. ^
  2. For better or worse, the press doesn’t necessarily give a lot of coverage to candidates who poll well if they aren’t otherwise seen as viable nominees. Carson and Paul get little coverage despite polling better than a lot of their competitors, for instance. You could argue that this is sophisticated behavior on the media’s part since early polls of the primaries are often inaccurate and tend to predict the nominee less well than other factors like endorsements. ^
  3. In the regression, I sought to explain Google News hits as a function of (i) Google search traffic in the previous week and (ii) Google search traffic in the subsequent week. The idea is that if press coverage lags public attention, Google search traffic from the previous week would be more predictive of press coverage, while the reverse would be true if media coverage leads public interest instead. It turned out, however, that Google searches from both the previous and subsequent week had a positive and statistically significant relationship with press coverage. ^
  4. For the record, the three previous stories that FiveThirtyEight published on Trump averaged about 100,000 pageviews. That’s a decent but not exceptional number relative to how our campaign-related stories have been doing. As you probably know if you’re reading this footnote, however, we have a pretty weird audience. ^
  5. The Huffington Post political desk is now labeling articles about Trump as “entertainment” rather than “politics.” I’m sympathetic to the impulse, but it’s a gimmick. On the one hand, Trump is still getting plenty of attention at the Huffington Post. (Perhaps even more, since they’re now crossposting Trump stories between politics and entertainment.) On the other hand, even if Trump isn’t a “serious” candidate or has no shot at the nomination, his candidacy will reverberate on the rest of the Republican field. Where is his 15 percent of the vote coming from, and where might it go if he fades? How is Trump affecting things like the RNC’s rules for debates, and who is he keeping off the stage? What, if anything, does he tell us about the mood of Republican voters? We’ve been skeptical of Trump from the outset at FiveThirtyEight, but we’re going to keep covering his campaign for these reasons. ^
  6. Whether to allow Trump to participate in the debates is a more difficult question. If he’s included, he’ll use the floor to be as disruptive as possible. If he’s excluded, he’ll scream and shout that the party is out to get him. The best approach might be to invite him but structure the debates such that there’s less opportunity for freewheeling interactions between the candidates. ^

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

So God Made a Farm Bill

This is a great satirical adaptation of a famous Paul Harvey radio address. Gets to the heart of our political dysfunction. From the WSJ:

So God Made a Farm Bill

A famous speech about those who toil in the fields gets an update

By Kimberley A. Strassel
 (With apologies to the late radio great Paul Harvey. )

And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker.” So God made a farmer.

God said, “I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, and then go to Washington and claim that this particular type of hard work is somehow unique in America and ought to be underwritten by the rest of the nation. I need a willing audience for that plea—a group clever enough and self-serving enough to see the electoral profit of standing for Carhartts, wheat fields and John Deere tractors.” So God made a Congress.

He said, “I need somebody in that Congress savvy enough to realize that farming means food, and food means nutrition, and nutrition means good things to voters, so farming means food stamps. Somebody to call to make that assistance bigger and forever, tame howls over soaring deficits, and plant the seeds of perpetual votes. Somebody to threaten to label anybody pushing for reform as rich, cruel and downright hateful of happy, cornfed children playing in hay lofts—and mean it.” So God made a Democratic Party.

God said, “I need somebody willing to spend five long years complaining about overspending, big government and special-interest giveaways. And get up and vote for $1 trillion in overspending, bigger government and special-interest giveaways—in the name of farmers. Then—when reminded of his reform promises—dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’ I need somebody to fret about drought, wax about food security, and muse (in private) that heedless government shutdowns really do have consequences. Including pressuring parties to prove they can accomplish something by voting for 949-page spending extravaganzas that nobody has bothered to read. Somebody willing to put in 40 hours spinning excuses for abandoning his principles and then, pained from the camera lights, put in 70 hours more.” So God made Republicans.

God had to have Democrats and Republicans willing to cast aside their differences in the name of handouts, and bale a legislative vehicle together with the strong bonds of self-interest. A vehicle that would combine food stamps and farm pork and thereby guarantee a coalition so powerful that it could mow over procedural ruts, race ahead of political rain and hogtie pesky opponents. A vehicle so unstoppable that its creators would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when the reformers vowed change: “Good luck, suckers.” So God made a farm bill.

God said: “I need somebody mighty enough to divert money to those who need it least, yet sneaky enough to do it behind closed doors. I need somebody to wheedle, deal, logroll, beg, trade, and cajole subsidy checks for corporate agribusiness, sushi rice, catfish, Christmas-tree promotion boards, biorefineries and at least 15 sitting members of Congress. Somebody to make sure there are no caps on subsidies and no asset tests for food stamps. Somebody in a nice suit. Somebody who has never been on a farm.” So God made lobbyists.

He said, “I need somebody or something to help patriotic Americans forget that 80% of that ‘farm’ bill is going to welfare, and most of the rest to sugar barons and cotton kings who vacation in Mallorca. Somebody or something to ensure people don’t get to wondering why it is we have a ‘farm’ bill when we don’t have a ‘laptop’ bill, or a ‘vampire-novel’ bill or a ‘swing-set’ bill in this free-market economy that Americans supposedly prize. Somebody or something who will so inspire the public with homespun images of clapboard churches and cows, leathery men holding rope, sheepdogs, plaid shirts, cowboy hats, and American flags that folks will entirely fail to realize that the people pictured—the hardworking souls tilling the back 40—are these days the last to see a dime of farm-bill money.” So God made Ram pickup trucks and Super Bowl commercials.

Finally, God looked down on all he’d created and He said: “Now I need somebody who really will work hard. Somebody who’ll get up day in and day out to plow through traffic to work, come home to help the kids and make the dinner and do the laundry, and struggle with the bills, and get up to do it all over again.

“Somebody who will limit himself to dreaming about that Ram pickup truck he can’t afford—because the IRS bill is due, and because the government-inflated cost of groceries and gas sure do make things tight, and because his own small business, which he built with his own sweat, doesn’t qualify for any handouts. I need somebody to spend his life paying for this week’s farm extravaganza, somebody who Congress made sure had no damn choice in the matter.”

So God made a taxpayer.

Who Knew What and When?

IRS

You can’t make this stuff up. Bradley Smith quoted from the WSJ:

The Internal Revenue Service’s scandalous targeting of tea party and conservative groups refuses to die, as one by one the administration’s explanations prove untrue.

We were told that the White House, like the rest of the country, learned about the program on May 10 through a planted question asked of then IRS official Lois Lerner at an American Bar Association conference. Turns out the White House knew earlier. We were told the targeting was the work of a few rogue IRS employees in Cincinnati. Then those employees insisted that they were being managed from Washington.

We were told that no political appointees were involved, but now we know the scandal goes at least to the office of Obama appointee and IRS Chief Counsel William Wilkins. We were told that liberal groups were targeted, too. But then the IRS’s inspector general, whose report exposed the harassment, clarified that only conservative groups were targeted.

Now the administration line is that the scandal is nonetheless “phony.” That assertion is part of a Democratic counteroffensive contending that the tea party and conservative groups applying for “charitable” tax status never should have sought such IRS approval.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, argued on “Meet the Press” on May 19 that conservative groups were, “under the guise of a charity, [using] undisclosed millions of dollars to do political campaigns.”

Rep. Becerra argues that 501(c)(4) status should be reserved for “something good, not groups that are in business to do politics.” That’s a remarkable statement from a man who has spent the past 22 years in elective office.

Big Brother.

IRS
IRS Scrutiny Was Deeper Than Thought

Government investigators have found that the Internal Revenue Service scrutinized conservative groups for raising political concerns over government spending, debt and taxes or even for advocating making America a better place to live, according to new details likely to inflame a widening IRS controversy.

Unbelievable? All too believable.

Review of “Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age”

I gave this book 4 stars, but I would have given it 3 1/2 if that was an option…

This is a well-researched examination of the politics of inequality. Unfortunately it fails to analyze  the economics of inequality, with the result that Bartels’ findings are based on some false premises and misperceptions.

The most serious error is to define and measure economic inequality solely in terms of income, when, in actuality, wealth is causing most of the divergence in incomes through the ownership of financial capital. Take a look at the income graphs: incomes converge during market crashes and recessions and diverge during market booms, so inequality is largely determined by the value of financial assets. Mr. Bartels uses the terms “haves” and “have-nots” extensively, but never stops to answer the obvious question: have what? What they have is capital: financial capital, human capital, and social capital. In this sense, growing inequality is one price of capitalist success. But instead of categorizing people as rich, poor, or middle class according to income data, Bartels should be looking at what determines those incomes and how those factors have changed over the past 30 years.

The rise of what Bartels terms the “New Gilded Age” can be attributed to two main events, a historical trend, and a technological revolution. The two events are Nixon’s repudiation of the gold redemption Bretton Woods dollar standard in 1971 and Paul Volcker’s appointment by Carter to break the back of inflation with tight monetary policy. The historical trend is the continuing globalization of trade and manufacturing that started in the early 1970s, while the technological revolution is that taking place in communications and information. Each of these changes has helped tip the balance of power between capital and labor, with the result that the returns to capital far outstrip returns to labor over the relevant time period. I question whether anyone really wants to accept the trade-offs to reverse this. Those trade-offs might include slower growth, less opportunity, less job creation, shrinking incomes, lower asset prices, higher inflation, dollar devaluation, and probably a declining population. Our emerging trading partners want no part of such trade-offs – they will take capitalist success wherever they can, so that’s the world we find ourselves competing in.

Though Bartels misses these fundamental economic truths about our current state of the world, he does identify the true political danger, which is that all this capital wealth has taken control over the democratic political process. This means the “haves” are now running policy and in so doing are defying economic realities (like market crashes) with policies that perpetuate market crises (like easy Fed policy and bailouts). But it is vitally important that we get our policy analysis correct, because Bartels’ interpretation leads him to conclude that the balance can be reinstated by electing more Democrats to office. Nothing could be more misguided. It doesn’t matter which Republocrats gain office, policies will continue to favor capital. Why? Simply put, because it’s a CAPITALIST system and success is defined in those terms. This has been proven clearly with the Clinton-Bush-Obama consistency in financial policy. Same old, same old.

Unfortunately, Bartels misses all this as he focuses on the politics of inequality and the dysfunctional political system. Let’s take his two main cases that demand explanation: the estate tax repeal and higher minimum wages. The public favors repeal of the estate tax and a minimum wage that keeps pace with wage incomes, but both populist preferences fail. Bartels tries, but really can’t explain why. Could it be that both estate tax repeal and lower minimum wages favor economic growth and capital accumulation? Do the non-wealthy recognize that in this free market system, accumulated capital is everything and thus from their personal perspective it’s wrong for the government to tax inheritances, of anybody? And don’t policies that allow the real value of the minimum wage to decline favor growth objectives by keeping wages low and employment higher or even stable? Aren’t national policies biased to favor higher GDP, lower unemployment, and lower inflation? Bartels identifies how party elites override populist preferences, but both of these preferences would be more readily embraced if the party elites better understood the economic realities of the system they seek to manage. In these cases, Democratic elites (by stopping estate tax repeal) seem more out of step with reality than Republican elites (by stopping minimum wage hikes), though Bartels wrongly assumes the opposite.

The real problem with our current politics is not taxes, misinformation, or voter ignorance. It’s that neither party is identifying the true causes of our democratic malaise and proposing solutions. Liberal elites tout redistribution through taxing and spending, but Western democracies adopting this strategy are in dire financial straits. This will not change, because political redistribution is counter-intuitive in a market economy where success in measured in profits and labor is a cost. The world has now largely accepted how markets create wealth, so there’s no going back (Marxist socialism is dead). On the other hand, conservatives tout market outcomes, but fail to account for how the accepted rules of the game tilt the outcomes in favor of the already successful, to the detriment of those struggling to become successful. Neither party is proposing to change their stripes. And why should they? Elites benefit to no end by perpetuating the status quo that favors their elite status. Liberals are saying to voters, “You NEED US to survive,” while conservatives are saying, “Just let us all enjoy our riches and someday you will too.” Is it any wonder why we have voter revolts?

The key to breaking out of this degenerative cycle is to open up the capitalist production process through the broad ownership of capital. This is not redistribution: ALL capital is earned through successful risk-taking, so every citizen of a free society must participate in successful risk-taking in order to share in the returns. (This is preferred practice in technology companies and why wealth is widely dispersed by Apple, Google and Microsoft.) On the portfolio side, we have extensive markets for managing risk, which enables us to take on prudent risks in hope of gaining higher returns. There is no magic here, but this is the only way to manage globalized world markets where capital is mobile and labor is not – where profits accumulate as capital and labor costs are minimized. Education is important to the extent that it creates opportunity to build human capital, which is also put at risk to earn a positive return.

The democratic political system will thrive when we empower the have-nots by promoting policies that guarantee their economic independence through participation in capitalism. The liberal stance favoring redistribution cannot succeed because it presupposes the have-nots’ perpetual dependence on political largesse. We already know that politics will favor the policies that yield economic success and wealth creation above all else. Thus, the promise of capitalism and freedom is not to be found in labor, union or otherwise; it’s to be found in widespread, accumulated capital. We need political leaders and scholars like Bartels to rise up and bring this message to the masses. It hasn’t happened yet and I’m not holding my breath.

%d bloggers like this: