Trumpism. What’s Normal Now?

I reprint this article because it discusses a perspective of our current politics that goes far beyond politics. Basically, what’s not normal is the anti-humanism of postmodern culture. The problem I see is that those complaining about our current political dysfunction are the same ones who have embraced postmodernism in all its forms, even if in dismay.

I think the Romans used to call this “bread and circuses,” but the masses have turned and taken over the Republic, which I suppose is their right.

America’s First Postmodern President

By Jeet Heer

The nature of reality is an open question in the age of Donald Trump. As the president regularly decries “the Fake News Media” and journalists catalogue his many lies, the battles of our time seem not just political but philosophical, indeed epistemological: What is real? How do we reach a consensus on the truth? These questions cut deeper than mere attempts to gauge the accuracy of Trump’s own words, or those of the White House staff. Trump’s ascension to leader of the free world still feels deeply strange, hence the common refrain that “this is not normal.” Trump himself sometimes seems seems surprised by his position. “I’m president!” he declared in a May ceremony celebrating the House passage of the American Health Care Act. “Hey, I’m president! Can you believe it?”

In an attempt to make sense of Trump’s vertiginous presidency, critics have made comparisons to contemporary autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or pillaged the history books for analogies ranging from Mussolini to Nixon. Others have looked at imagined futures, as Trump has fostered a vogue in dystopias such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. However illuminating these parallels might be, they ultimately fall short by failing to consider Trump in his immediate context. The president is best understood not as a figure who harkens back to the distant past, evokes other lands, or foreshadows the future, but one who is representative of this very moment in America, where media overload is destroying the sense of a shared public reality.

In examining Trump as a product of our unique epoch, one of the sharpest analytical tools available is the theory of postmodernism, developed in the 1970s and 1980s by a host of theorists—perhaps most famously by Fredric Jameson, the polymathic Duke University literary scholar. In a famous 1984 essay, later expanded into the book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson synthesized the work of scholars from many fields—philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, economist Ernest Mandel, architect Robert Venturi, filmmaker Guy Debord, sociologist Jean Baudrillard—in arguing that the triumph of economic globalism, which he dates to the early 1970s, inaugurated a new cultural era marked by the triumph of populist images over the strenuous elite art that had characterized modernism.

For Jameson, postmodernism meant the birth of “a society of the image or the simulacrum and a transformation of the ‘real’ into so many pseudoevents.” Befitting the “postliteracy of the late capitalist world,” the culture of postmodernism would be characterized by “a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense” where “depth is replaced by surface.” Postmodernism was especially visible in the field of architecture, where it manifested itself as a “populist” revolt “against the elite (and Utopian) austerities of the great architectural modernisms: It is generally affirmed, in other words, that these newer buildings are popular works, on the one hand, and that they respect the vernacular of the American city fabric, on the other; that is to say, they no longer attempt, as did the masterworks and monuments of high modernism, to insert a different, a distinct, an elevated, a new Utopian language into the tawdry and commercial sign system of the surrounding city, but rather they seek to speak that very language, using its lexicon and syntax as that has been emblematically ‘learned from Las Vegas.’”

That final phrase is a reference to Learning From Vegas, a 1972 book by Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour that critiqued “heroic” modern architecture and instead sought to “gain insight from the commonplace,” specifically by analyzing the Las Vegas Strip. Trump, as a real estate developer, was certainly willing to “learn from Las Vegas,” as he proved with his vulgar, now-shuttered Taj Mahal casino. But there’s a deeper symmetry between Trump and the account of postmodern society found in Jameson’s work (not just Postmodernism but subsequent volumes like The Seeds of Time and A Singular Modernity) and in the work of his fellow travelers, like Baudrillard and Debord. These writers describe a world where the visual has triumphed over the literary, where fragmented sound bites have replaced linear thinking, where nostalgia (“Make America Great Again”) has replaced historical consciousness or felt experiences of the past, where simulacra is indistinguishable from reality, where an aesthetic of pastiche and kitsch (Trump Tower) replaces modernism’s striving for purity and elitism, and where a shared plebeian culture of vulgarity papers over intensifying class disparities. In virtually every detail, Trump seems like the perfect manifestation of postmodernism.

For Baudrillard, “the perfect crime” was the murder of reality, which has been covered up with decoys (“virtual reality” and “reality shows”) that are mistaken for what has been destroyed. “Our culture of meaning is collapsing beneath our excess of meaning, the culture of reality collapsing beneath the excess of reality, the information culture collapsing beneath the excess of information—the sign and reality sharing a single shroud,” Baudrillard wrote in The Perfect Crime (1995). The Trump era is rich in such unreality. The president is not only a former reality-show star, but one whose fame is based more on performance than reality—on the idea that he’s a successful businessman. Although his real estate and gambling empire suffered massive losses in the early 1990s, and Trump’s “finances went into a tailspin,” he survived thanks to the superficial value of his brand, which he propped up though media manipulation.

In Baudrillard’s terms, Trump is a simulacra businessman, a copy of a reality that has no real existence. All sorts of simulacrum and decoy realities now flourish. Consider the popularity of conspiracy theories, evidence of a culture where it’s easy for fictional and semi-fictional narratives to spread like wildfire through social media. Trump loves spreading conspiracy theories about his enemies, and his enemies love spreading conspiracy theories about him. This propagation of fictions makes it difficult to build a convincing case against him. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow revealed Thursday that a supposedly classified document containing bombshells about Russia was sent anonymously to her show’s tipline. Her team eventually determined the document was fake. “Somebody out there is shopping carefully forged documents to try to discredit news agencies reporting on the Russian attack on our election,” she said, “and specifically on the possibility that the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russians in mounting that attack.”

Another recent example shows how easy it is to fall into a farrago of absurdity when reporting on Trump. Last weekend, the president tweeted a wrestling video showing him pummeling a man who had a CNN logo superimposed on his face. A Reddit user named HanAssholeSolo, who has a history of racist and anti-Semitic posts, took credit for the clip. CNN discovered the user’s true identity, but decided not to name him, though added, “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity.” This sentence gave the false impression of blackmail, and HanAssholeSolo suddenly became a free speech martyr to the right. As often happens in political battles of the Trump era, his supporters took a few random facts at the margins of the story and constructed an alternative reality, so that the story became not about the president’s endorsement of a threatening video created by a political extremist, but about a powerful news network harassing a private citizen. The entire spectacle shows we’re living in a Baudrillardian funhouse where the firm ground of reality has slipped away.

Postmodernism brings with it the erasure of older distinctions not just between reality and fiction, but between elite and popular culture. In his 1998 book The Origins of Postmodernity, the historian Perry Anderson called attention to the theme of plebeianization first developed by Jameson: the collapse of old bourgeois norms among the rich and powerful, even as class hierarchy remained strong (if not more entrenched than ever). “More widely, in the public sphere democratization of manners and disinhibition of mores advanced together,” Anderson argued, citing the antics of Princess Diana and President Bill Clinton. “For long, sociologists had debated the embourgeoisement of the working-class in the West—never a very happy term for the processes at issue. By the nineties, however, the more striking phenomenon was a general encanaillement”—or slumming—“of the possessing classes—as it were: starlet princesses and sleazeball presidents, beds for rent in the official residence and bribes for killer ads, disneyfication of protocols and tarantinization of practices, the avid corteges of the nocturnal underpass or the gubernatorial troop. In scenes like these lies much of the social backdrop of the postmodern.” Trump, the wealthy president who brags about grabbing women by the genitals and tweets out abuse of female journalists, embodies this “encanaillement of the possessing classes” even better than Diana or Clinton.

The virtue of theories of postmodernism, as developed by Jameson and his peers, is that they link cultural changes with deeper economic transformations. The waves that carried a ridiculous TV celebrity to the presidency are being propelled by a deeper current of globalization: the triumph of the unreality industries, the move of manufacturing jobs out of the developed world, and the proliferation of technologies that saturate us with media.

This analysis suggests that Trump is the product not just of a fluke election or a racist and sexist backlash, but the culmination of late capitalism [This goes far beyond who controls the means of production. Commercialism? Trump is a commercial brander]. This has profound implications for how we see Trump—and how we oppose him. We have to focus less on Trump’s personal flaws and more on the world that has enabled him. His habitual prevarications aren’t simply the result of his defective character, but an effective tactic. In a world where commerce and media (including social media) reward performance above truth telling, it’s not surprising that a figure like Trump rises to the top. Any moralistic condemnation of Trump is incomplete without acknowledging the institutions (notably the media) that both created him and allowed him to thrive.

The danger of a sweeping theory like postmodernism is that it can produce despair. After all, fighting something so pervasive as “late capitalism” is much harder than winning elections. For the Trump resistance, seeing him as a postmodern president opens up the dilemma that the best way to fight him in the short term might be to borrow some of his tactics. (It’s no surprise that another savvy performer-politician, Senator Al Franken, has emerged as a major resistance leader.) The danger is that by imitating Trump, we’ll only create a world where future Trumps will emerge.

But there’s a different way to look at Trump as a postmodern president. Paradoxically, even as Trump exploits today’s media, his politics of nostalgia show that his own followers want to escape the postmodern world [I’d say they want to preserve, not escape]. Trump’s appeal is based on his promise to return to an earlier, simpler era, where jobs were rooted in physical activity (manufacturing, coal mining) and the economy was governed by the imperatives of nationalist solidarity (“America First”) and not globalization. There is a genuinely utopian dimension to Trumpism, suggesting a widespread desire to reverse late capitalism. So the logical response to Trumpism is to counter him with someone who can truly challenge the economic status quo, rather than being a mere avatar for such hopes. [Good luck with that, since the intellectual class is mired in an obsolete political-economic paradigm of 20th century class conflict and laborism. The solution they’ve come up with? Cheap credit fueled by the promises of a fiat money governing regime.]

Michael Ramirez / Daily Signal

Michael Ramirez / Daily Signal

Healthcare Mythologies

First, I will disclose I am no expert on the health care industry, but I am somewhat of an expert on finance theory applied to risk management and insurance pooling. The political healthcare debate is so disconcerting that it’s impossible to sit by and watch without trying to inject some reason. Sorry.

We need health care reform, we’ve needed it for about 20 years now, but it matters what kind of reform we get. Here are two excerpts from recent articles written by Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation and Holman Jenkins Jr. of the WSJ that illustrate some of the uncomfortable truths.

First, we need to deal with some reality concerning the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare:

Almost every promise made eight years ago about ObamaCare turned out to be a falsehood. You couldn’t keep your insurance plan, doctor or provider in many cases. It didn’t save $2,500 per family (more like $2,500 more). It didn’t lead to expanded patient choice. And the tax increases badly hurt the economy and jobs market, and the insurance markets really have entered a death spiral that if left unfixed will blow-up the entire insurance market.

The fundamental lie of ObamaCare is revealed in the law’s very title: The Affordable Care Act. Democrats and Barack Obama can sing the praises of this law until the cows come home, but no one with a straight face can say that it has made healthcare more “affordable” — except the millions whom we gave coverage to for free.

So, unless one believes in the “economics of free,” we’ve got a problem here and it’s written into the faulty logic of the plan.

Second, the way out of this quagmire is not going to be led by Bernie Sanders doubling and quadrupling down on “free.” Mr. Jenkins speaks an inconvenient truth:

Down this road [of reform] lies hope that Americans will stop channeling extravagant gobs of their income to the medical-industrial complex. Down this road Medicare could be rethought, perhaps with rational Democrats lending a hand. We know these things will have to happen anyway. Otherwise the country is bankrupt.

P.S. Don’t kid yourself that Democrats have a plan other than blindly defending more and more subsidies for more and more health-care consumers. Single-payer is not a plan. It’s an invitation for the health-care industry—doctors, hospitals, the research establishment—simply to turn their full attention to serving the self-paying rich.

So, as far as I can see, the AHCA is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. Do I believe this because I’m partisan? No. A healthcare market can only function to deliver a high-quality, affordable product if there is an abundant supply to meet the desired need/demand. Only a functioning consumer-product market can provide that supply at an efficient price. Yes, we need a safety net for pre-existing conditions and we need to save more for future medical needs. We’ll only be able to do that if we give up the fantasy that health care is a right to be provided “free” from the government.

Lastly, in economics we learn that everything in life is a trade-off. We need to figure out what kinds of trade-offs we want to make, individually and as a society.

Listen. Time for New Thinking.

One thing I have noticed in this political environment is that people do not listen to political views that diverge from their own. They believe what they believe, and that’s the end of it. Then they project bad intentions on anyone who disagrees. It makes for useless, though necessary, conversations.

This writer makes a good case for some rational reasoning through the imperative of listening to our politics rather than shouting them. We need to chart the correct path forward and it’s not by turning to the recent or distant past. Those mostly provide warning signs for the consequences of foolish mistakes.

History tells us that populist waves can lead to disaster or to reform…So how might we tilt the odds from disaster to reform? First, listen.

It’s Time for New Economic Thinking Based on the Best Science Available, Not Ideology

A new narrative for a complex age

By Eric Beinhocker 

If 2008 was the year of the financial crash, 2016 was the year of the political crash. In that year we witnessed the collapse of the last of the four major economic-political ideologies that dominated the 20th century: nationalism; Keynesian Pragmatism; socialism; and neoliberalism. In the 1970s and 80s the center right in many countries abandoned Keynesianism and adopted neoliberalism. In the 1980s and 90s the center left followed, largely abandoning democratic socialism and adopting a softer version of neoliberalism.

For a few decades we thought the end of history had arrived and political battles in most OECD countries were between centre-right and centre-left parties arguing in a narrow political spectrum, but largely agreeing on issues such as free trade, the benefits of immigration, the need for flexible efficient markets, and the positive role of global finance. This consensus was reinforced by international institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, and OECD, and the Davos political and business elite.

In 2008 that consensus was rocked, last year it crumbled. Some will cling on to the idea that the consensus can be revived. They will say we just need to defend it more vigorously, the facts will eventually prevail, the populist wave is exaggerated, it’s really just about immigration, Brexit will be a compromise, Clinton won more votes than Trump, and so on. But this is wishful thinking. Large swathes of the electorate have lost faith in the neoliberal consensus, the political parties that backed it, and the institutions that promoted it. This has created an ideological vacuum being filled by bad old ideas, most notably a revival of nationalism in the US and a number of European countries, as well as a revival of the hard socialist left in some countries.

History tells us that populist waves can lead to disaster or to reform. Disaster is certainly a realistic scenario now with potential for an unravelling of international cooperation, geopolitical conflict, and very bad economic policy. But we can also look back in history and see how, for example, in the US at the beginning of the 20th century Teddy Roosevelt harnessed populist discontent to create a period of major reform and progress.

So how might we tilt the odds from disaster to reform? First, listen. The populist movements do contain some racists, xenophobes, genuinely crazy people, and others whom we should absolutely condemn. But they also contain many normal people who are fed up with a system that doesn’t work for them. People who have seen their living standards stagnate or decline, who live precarious lives one paycheque at a time, who think their children will do worse than they have. And their issues aren’t just economic, they are also social and psychological. They have lost dignity and respect, and crave a sense of identity and belonging.

They feel – rightly or wrongly – that they played by the rules, but others in society haven’t, and those others have been rewarded. They also feel that their political leaders and institutions are profoundly out of touch, untrustworthy, and self-serving. And finally, they feel at the mercy of big impersonal forces – globalization, technology change, rootless banks and large faceless corporations. The most effective populist slogan has been “take back control”.

After we listen we then have to give new answers. New narratives and policies about how people’s lives can be made better and more secure, how they can fairly share in their nation’s prosperity, how they can have more control over their lives, how they can live with dignity and respect, how everyone will play by the same rules and the social contract will be restored, how openness and international cooperation benefits them not just an elite, and how governments, corporations, and banks will serve their interests, and not the other way around.

This is why we need new economic thinking. This is why the NAEC initiative is so important. The OECD has been taking economic inequality and stagnation seriously for longer than most and has some of the best data and analysis of these issues around. It has done leading work on alternative metrics other than GDP to give insight into how people are really doing, on well-being. It is working hard to articulate new models of growth that are inclusive and environmentally sustainable. It has leading initiatives on education, health, cities, productivity, trade, and numerous other topics that are critical to a new narrative.

But there are gaps too. Rational economic models are of little help on these issues, and a deeper understanding of psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, and history is required. Likewise, communications is critical – thick reports are important for government ministries, but stories, narratives, visuals, and memes are needed to shift the media and public thinking.

So what might such a new narrative look like? My hope is that even in this post-truth age it will be based on the best facts and science available. I believe it will contain four stories:

  • A new story of growth [see this post]
  • A new story of inclusion [see this post]
  • A new social contract
  • A new idealism

This last point doesn’t get discussed enough. Periods of progress are usually characterized by idealism, common projects we can all aspire to. Populism is a zero-sum mentality – the populist leader will help me get more of a fixed pie. Idealism is a positive-sum mentality – we can do great things together. Idealism is the most powerful antidote to populism.

Finally, economics has painted itself as a detached amoral science, but humans are moral creatures. We must bring morality back into the center of economics in order for people to relate to and trust it. All of the science shows that deeply ingrained, reciprocal moral behaviors are the glue that holds society together. Understanding the economy as not just an amoral machine that provides incentives and distributes resources, but rather as a human moral construct is essential, not just for creating a more just economy, but also for understanding how the economy actually creates prosperity.

In short, it is time to forge a new vision that puts people back at the center of our economy. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, it is time to create an economy that is “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We are truly at a fluid point in history. It could be a great step backward or a great step forwards. We must all push forwards together.

Based on remarks originally delivered to the OECD New Approaches to Economic Challenges workshop, December 14, 2016, Paris.

Why I Shorted Hillary Clinton

Six months before the election.

In the six odd weeks since the Nov. 8 election, the news media has presented a chaotic post-mortem of what exactly happened in this election. Mostly, they are focused on the unfathomable: how did Hillary Clinton lose? Sexism? Comey? Russian hackers? Putin?

But a number of election analysts saw the problems of a Clinton candidacy from afar. In the spring of 2015, I personally told a group of Silicon Valley liberals that Clinton was probably the weakest candidate the Democrats could choose in the current anti-establishment political climate. Democrats and Republicans alike were openly lamenting even the idea of another Bush-Clinton election.

More damning was the hard electoral evidence already out there on the Democratic agenda under Obama: the loss of the House and Senate, and more than a dozen governorships and state legislatures. How could these facts be ignored? I have discovered in our polarized politics that people don’t really listen to reason, they merely believe. And then they are faced with disbelief at the outcomes. (Scott Adams calls it cognitive dissonance.)

For most of 2015, the primary season was unclear, though most expected the party choices of Clinton vs. Rubio, Walker, Christy, or Bush would play out. Certainly very few–neither myself nor anybody I know–gave Trump even a remote chance of gaining the nomination. The GOP field of intended candidates became a parlor joke of seventeen dwarves crowding the stage. Liberals could not believe any of these could match up to Hillary on the national stage. They reverted to praising her extended political resume, as if that mattered. (Obama, for instance, probably had the shortest resume in modern presidential history.)

I maintained that Hillary had the highest negatives of any possible Democratic nominee and that after this became apparent following the DNC in August, panic would set in. I was off by a month because of someone nobody saw coming: Donald Trump.

After the first few primaries, Trump’s success gave new life to the fantasies Democrats were spinning. After all, Trump had the highest negatives of any candidate in modern history. At the time I tended to agree that a face-off between Clinton and Trump was a bit of a wild card and that by conventional politics, Clinton would seem to be favored. On the Republican side, opinion pollsters and media pundits all discounted Trump’s chances, but his primary wins rolled on. It was about March when I had the epiphany that past history was no guide to the future – this time was different. The anti-establishment wave that had been building since 2000 had finally begun to crest over “politics as usual.”

Ignoring this anomaly, liberals actually began to desire Trump to be the Republican nominee and conservatives secretly wondered if he wasn’t a Clinton shill. But still, I suspected none of what Trump did would accrue to Clinton’s benefit in this election cycle. It was in March, after observing the odd traction of Bernie Sanders, that I laid some wagers betting against a Clinton presidency (note, not FOR Trump or any other nominee, but solely against Clinton for the Democrats). Part of the reason was I felt the confidence of Clinton supporters was emotionally driven, so I got incredible odds that made the bet a no-brainer: 10 to 1, when the betting lines were closer to 4 to 1. I could have laid off this bet on the other side and enjoyed a riskless arbitrage, but I was fairly convinced, as a political scientist who had studied the data on the last 4 presidential elections, that any Clinton-Trump contest would be pretty much a toss-up and I liked the risk-return payoff.

When Trump’s support seemed to be bleeding working-class union voters from the Rust Belt, I was more convinced. But not my liberal Democrat friends. They cited endless poll numbers to support their beliefs, trusting in data from 538. I merely asked that since the polls, including those by 538, had been wrong for almost 9 months, why exactly should they be accurate now? Then they resorted to Electoral College math, but I replied that swing states with slim margins can flip rather easily. A month to two weeks before the election, with Clinton enjoying a 3-6 point lead in the polls I offered to double-down on my wagers against Clinton but got no takers. Apparently, confidence was growing a bit shaky. Trump support never seemed to go away despite the bashing he received in the media.

On Nov. 7, a friend who trusted my objectivity asked me who I thought would win. I said, although traditional measures point to a narrow Clinton win, traditional measures have failed and thus the outcome was still a 50-50 toss-up in my mind. I definitely liked my bet. On Nov. 9, we woke up to a new political reality, but the point is that we should all have seen it coming.

Here is a quote from the Economist assessing the election:

Republicans have long held the edge in America’s wide-open spaces, but never has the gap been this profound: a whopping 80% of voters who have over one square mile (2.6 square km) of land to enjoy to themselves backed Mr Trump. As the scatter plot below demonstrates, as counties become increasingly densely populated, fewer and fewer vote Republican. American politics appear to be realigning along a cleavage between inward-looking countryfolk and urban globalists.

The problem here (see italics) is that this tension in American politics is nothing new. In fact, it’s more than 200 years old. Regional differences have always existed but have become acute at certain times in our history. The urban-rural polarization is particularly sharp today because the parties have divvied up the polity with targeted policies: Democrats target identity groups that mostly live in urban areas and Republicans target everybody else (see this 2006 op-ed on the 2000/04 elections). The divide is compounded by urban media that targets political biases to its main audience: urban liberals. So urban media elites told their liberal urban audiences what they wanted to hear, rather than objective truth. I’m sure liberal reporters like E.J. Dionne, Juan Williams, Meet The Press, the NY Times op-ed page, etc., believed it themselves.

So, now the disillusioned are catching up with reality. Here’s Conan O’Brien stating the obvious:

“I really believe nobody knows anything right now,” says Conan O’Brien. “I really think the whole mantra that everyone must have, not just in this medium but in the world in general, is that no one knows anything.” Trump’s victory has landed a blow to the country’s notions of certainty. “I would say we’re not seeing the death of certainty,” O’Brien said. “But certainty has taken a holiday right now.” Plenty of certainty, now discarded, was generated in 2016. Our cozy silos of belief and customized group assumptions gave us our most brutal campaign in years. “Everyone has their own street corner,” O’Brien said.

As I stated above, partisan preferences have become less about reasoned policies and compromises and more about pure belief systems. Facts that don’t fit beliefs get tossed aside. If you believe Hillary lost because of Putin, or Comey, or sexism, or racism, or Electoral College math, you’re sinking into quicksand of your own making. Winning a majority of almost 85% of the 3141 counties across the nation is a significant statistical feat that can’t be explained by any single factor. From where I sat it had little to do with Trump, who merely road the wave. Rural and suburban America can never be dismissed by either party. Hillary Clinton was the weakest candidate in the post-war era, by far. If I could see it, so could you.*

*BTW, I’m not clairvoyant or particularly gifted with political genius. Using traditional electoral measures I bet on Romney over Obama for an easy win in 2012. But we can learn from our mistakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Get Beyond Our Tribal Politics

Long-winded, but worthy enough for a reprint (from the WSJ):

Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins Tuesday, understanding the psychological causes of our national rift can help us bridge it

By JONATHAN HAIDT and RAVI IYER

Nov. 4, 2016 11:05 a.m. ET

The most-watched made-for-TV movie in American history is “The Day After,” a 1983 portrayal of life in Kansas and Missouri in the days just before and after an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. If you’ve had even fleeting thoughts that Tuesday’s election could bring about the end of the world or the destruction of the country, you might want to find “The Day After” on YouTube, scroll to minute 53 and watch the next six minutes. Now that’s an apocalypse.

It’s an absurd comparison, of course, but the absurdity is helpful. It reminds us that no matter how bad things seem, we have a lot to be grateful for. The Soviet Union is gone, and life in America has gotten much better since the 1980s by most objective measures. Crime is way down, prosperity and longevity are way up, and doors are open much more widely for talented people from just about any demographic group. Yes, we have new problems, and the benefits haven’t been spread evenly, but if you look at the big picture, we are making astonishing progress.

Watching “The Day After” also might help Americans to tone down the apocalyptic language that so many have used about the presidential race. On the right, some speak of this as the “Flight 93 election,” meaning that America has been hijacked by treasonous leftists who are trying to crash the plane, so electing Donald Trump to rush the cockpit is the only sane choice. On the left, some think that a Trump victory would lead to a constitutional crisis followed by a military coup, fascism and dictatorship.

Nearly half the country will therefore wake up deeply disappointed on the morning of Nov. 9, and many members of the losing side will think that America is doomed. Those on the winning side will feel relieved, but many will be shocked and disgusted that nearly half of their fellow citizens voted for the moral equivalent of the devil. The disgust expressed by both sides in this election is particularly worrisome because disgust dehumanizes its targets. That is why it is usually fostered by the perpetrators of genocide—disgust makes it easier for ordinary citizens to kill their neighbors.

Suburban neighbors in the swing state of Pennsylvania have managed to preserve their friendship and sanity throughout a long and bitter election season. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday reports. Photo: Heather Seidel for The Wall Street Journal

In short, the day after this election is likely to be darker and more foreboding than the day after just about any U.S. election since 1860. Is it possible for Americans to forgive, accept and carry on working and living together?

We think that it is. After all, civility doesn’t require consensus or the suspension of criticism. It is simply the ability to disagree productively with others while respecting their sincerity and decency. That can be hard to do when emotions run so high. But if we understand better the psychological causes of our current animosity, we can all take some simple steps to turn it down, free ourselves from hatred and make the next four years better for ourselves and the country. Three time-honored quotations can serve as guides.

“Me against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.” —Bedouin saying

Human nature is tribal. We form teams easily, most likely because we have evolved for violent intergroup conflict. Our minds take to it so readily that we invent myths, games and sports—including war games like paintball—that let us enjoy the pleasures of intergroup conflict without the horrors of actual war.

The tribal mind is adept at changing alliances to face shifting threats, as the Bedouin saying indicates. We see such shifts after party primaries, when those who backed a losing candidate swing around to support the nominee. And we saw it happen after the 9/11 attacks, when the country came together to support the president and the military in the invasion of Afghanistan.

But with the exception of the few months after 9/11, cross-partisan animosity has been rising steadily since the late 1990s. This year, for the first time since Pew Research began asking in 1994, majorities in both parties expressed not just “unfavorable” views of the other party but “very unfavorable” views. Those ratings were generally below 20% throughout the 1990s. And more than 40% in each party now see the policies of the other party as being “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” Those numbers are up by about 10% in both parties just since 2014.

So what will happen the next time there is a major terrorist attack? Will we come together again? Or will the attack become a partisan football within hours, as happened after the various lone-wolf attacks of the past year? Something is broken in American tribalism. It is now “my brothers and me against my cousins” all the time, even when we are threatened by strangers and even when there is no threat at all.

Democracy requires trust and cooperation as well as competition. A healthy democracy features flexible and shifting coalitions. We must find a way to see citizens on the other side as cousins who are sometimes opponents but who share most of our values and interests and are never our mortal enemies.

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?… You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” —Jesus, in Matthew 7:3-5

Our tribal minds are equipped with a powerful tool: shameless and clueless hypocrisy. It is a general rule of psychology that “thinking is for doing”: We think with a particular purpose in mind, and often that purpose isn’t to find the truth but to defend ourselves or attack our opponents.

Psychologists call this process “motivated reasoning.” It is found whenever self-interest is in play. When the interests of a group are added to the mix, this sort of biased, god-awful reasoning becomes positively virtuous—it signals your loyalty to the team. This is why partisans find it so easy to dismiss scandalous revelations about their own candidate while focusing so intently on scandalous revelations about the other candidate.

Motivated reasoning has interacted with tribalism and new media technologies since the 1990s in unfortunate ways. Social media, hackers and Google searches now help us to find hundreds of specks in our opponents’ eyes, but no technology can force us to acknowledge the logs in our own.

“Nature has so formed us that a certain tie unites us all, but…this tie becomes stronger from proximity.” —Cicero, “On Friendship”

Humans are tribal, but tribalism can be transcended. It exists in tension with our extraordinary ability to develop bonds with other human beings. Romeo and Juliet fell in love. French, British and German soldiers came out of their trenches in World War I to exchange food, cigarettes and Christmas greetings.

The key, as Cicero observed, is proximity, and a great deal of modern research backs him up. Students are more likely to become friends with the student whose dorm room is one door away than with the student whose room is four doors away. People who have at least one friend from the other political party are less likely to hate the supporters of that party.

But tragically, Americans are losing their proximity to those on the other side and are spending more time in politically purified settings. Since the 1980s, Democrats have been packing into the cities while the rural areas and exurbs have been getting more Republican. Institutions that used to bring people together—such as churches—are now splitting apart over culture war issues such as gay marriage.

Ever more of our social life is spent online, in virtual communities or networks that are politically homogeneous. When we do rub up against the other side online, relative anonymity often leads to stunning levels of incivility, including racist and sexist slurs and threats of violence.

So are we doomed? Will the polarizing trends identified by Pew just keep going until the country splits in two? Maybe John Adams was right in 1814 when he wrote, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.”

But we have lasted 240 years so far, and both sides agree that America is worth fighting for. We just have to see that the fight isn’t always against each other; it is also a struggle to adapt our democracy and our habits for polarizing times and technologies.

Some of these adaptations will require changes to laws and institutions. Some will come from improving technology as we fine-tune social media to reward productive disagreement while filtering out trolling and intimidation.

And many of the changes must come from each of us, as individuals who have friends, co-workers and cousins who voted for the other side. How will we treat them as customers, employees, students and neighbors? What will we say to them at Thanksgiving dinner?

If you would like to let go of anger on Nov. 9 without letting go of your moral and political principles, here is some advice, adapted from ancient wisdom and modern research.

First, separate your feelings about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton from your feelings about their supporters. Political scientists report that since the 1980s, Americans have increasingly voted against the other side’s candidate, rather than voting enthusiastically for their own, and that is especially true this time. So don’t assume that most people on the other side like or even agree with their candidate on any particular issue. They may be voting out of fears and frustrations that you don’t understand, but if you knew their stories, you might well empathize with them.

Second, step back and think about your goals. In the long run, would you rather change people or hate them? If you actually want to persuade or otherwise influence people, you should know that it is nearly impossible to change people’s minds by arguing with them. When there is mutual antipathy, there is mutual motivated reasoning, defensiveness and hypocrisy.

But anything that opens the heart opens the mind as well, so do what you can to cultivate personal relationships with those on the other side. Spend time together, and let the proximity recommended by Cicero strengthen ties. Familiarity does not breed contempt. Research shows that as things or people become familiar, we like them more.

Emotions often drive reasoning, so as our hearts harden, our thinking also calcifies, and we become dogmatic. We are less able to think flexibly and address the social problems that we claim to care about. As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” So cultivating a few cross-partisan friendships will make you smarter as well as calmer, even if polarization grows worse.

And if you do find a way to have a real conversation with someone on the other side, approach it skillfully. One powerful opener is to point to a log in your own eye—to admit right up front that you or your side were wrong about something. Doing this at the start of a conversation signals that you aren’t in combat mode. If you are open, trusting and generous, your partner is likely to reciprocate.

Another powerful depolarizing move is praise, as we saw in the second Clinton-Trump debate. After more than 90 minutes of antagonism, a member of the town-hall audience brought the evening to a close with this question: “Would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”

Mrs. Clinton began with weak praise by saying that she respects Mr. Trump’s children. But then she made it strong and generous by noting how “incredibly able” those children are and how devoted they are to their father, adding, “I think that says a lot about Donald.” Mr. Trump responded in kind: “I will say this about Hillary. She doesn’t quit, and she doesn’t give up. I respect that.”

That brief exchange was emotionally powerful—the only uplifting moment of the night for many viewers. Had it been the opening exchange, might the debate have been more elevated, more constructive?

This has been a frightening year for many Americans. Questions about the durability, legitimacy and wisdom of our democracy have been raised, both here and abroad. But the true test of our democracy—and our love of country—will come on the day after the election. Starting next Wednesday, each of us must decide what kind of person we want to be and what kind of relationship we want to have with our politically estranged cousins.

Dr. Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, a fellow at the Martin Prosperity Institute and the author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Dr. Iyer is a social psychologist and data scientist at the website Ranker and the executive director of CivilPolitics.org.

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.
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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.

Failed Paradigms

From The American Interest

The problems of a small state college point to the weakness at the heart of liberal society—a weakness that undermines the strength of our republic at home and endangers world peace. And neither political party has the answers.

Debate? What Debate?

I can’t imagine a more sophomoric attempt at moderating a Presidential primary debate than what occurred last night under the direction of CNBC. Apparently there was no clear winner as much as an overwhelmingly clear loser: CNBC. One wonders when the media elites will address the real challenges and issues the American polity faces. I won’t hold my breath.

The last fiscally responsible adult we had in public service in Washington was Paul Volcker, and he was a Democrat. And elites wonder why the average American is fed up with national politics. Kudos to Cruz.

David Stockman eviscerates the pathetic performance in his blog reposted below:

The Fed’s elephantine $4.5 trillion balance sheet represents the greatest fiscal fraud ever conceived.

The fact is, the monetary madness in the Eccles Building is destroying free market capitalism by systematically and massively falsifying the prices of financial assets, and fueling a relentless, debilitating accumulation of debt throughout the warp and woof of the American economy and the rest of the world; and it’s simultaneously extinguishing political democracy by deeply subsidizing our crushing $19 trillion national debt.

Yet not one of three moderators during the entire two hour period asked a question about the elephant in the room.

The Debate: GOP Candidates Elevated, CNBC Eviscerated

by  • October 29, 2015

Well now. We actually got our money’s worth last night.

Almost with out exception the GOP candidates conveyed a compelling message that the state is not our savior, while the CNBC moderators spent the night fumbling with fantasy football and inanities about which vitamin supplements Ben Carson has used or endorsed.

But this was about more than tone. The interaction between the candidates and the CNBC moderators revealed the yawning gap between the bubble world at the intersection of Washington and Wall Street and the hard scrabble reality of economic stagnation and political alienation on main street America.

Yes, the CNBC moderators engaged in a deplorable display of gotcha journalism punctuated by a snarky self-righteousness that was downright offensive. John Harwood is surely secretly on the payroll of the Democratic National Committee and it was more than obvious why Becky Quick excels at serving tea to blathering old fools like Warren Buffett.

So they deserved the Cruz missile that came flying at them mid-way through the debate.

At that point the Senator from Texas had had enough, especially from Carl Quintanilla. The latter has spend years on CNBC commentating about the “market”, but wouldn’t know honest capitalism is if slapped him upside the head, and has apparently never meet a Washington intervention that he didn’t cheer on as something to help the stock averages go higher:

Let me say something at the outset. The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match. And if you look at the questions—Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math?… Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about substantive issues?”

Nor did the Texas Senator let up:

“Carl, I’m not finished yet. The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every thought and question from the media was ‘Which of you is more handsome and wise?”

As one pundit put it afterwards, “given the grievous injuries inflicted on Team CNBC”  by Cruz and the rest of the candidates, the only thing left to do was “to shoot the wounded”.

Actually, there is rather more. Last night was billed as a debate on domestic issues and the economy and CNBC is the communications medium of record about the daily comings and goings of the US economy and the financial markets at its center. Yet not one of three moderators during the entire two hour period asked a question about the elephant in the room.

They had to bring in from the sidelines the intrepid Rick Santelli to even get the Federal Reserve on the table. Its almost as if the CNBC commentators work on the set of the Truman Show and have no clue that it’s all make believe.

In the alternative, call this condition Bubble Blindness. It’s a contagious ideological disease that afflicts the entire corridor from Wall Street to Washington, and CNBC is the infected host that propagates it.

The fact is, the monetary madness in the Eccles Building is destroying free market capitalism by systematically and massively falsifying the prices of financial assets, and fueling a relentless, debilitating accumulation of debt throughout the warp and woof of the American economy and the rest of the world; and it’s simultaneously extinguishing political democracy by deeply subsidizing our crushing $19 trillion national debt.

The GOP politicians appropriately sputtered last night about the bipartisan beltway scam rammed through the House yesterday by Johnny Lawnchair, but they were given no opportunity by their clueless moderators to explore exactly why this kind of taxpayer betrayal happens over and over.

Well, there is a simple answer. The Fed’s elephantine $4.5 trillion balance sheet represents the greatest fiscal fraud ever conceived. Last year it paid the Treasury approximately $100 billion in absolutely phony profits scalped from its massive trove of Treasury debt and quasi-government GSE paper.

That is, over time Uncle Sam has purchased $4.5 trillion worth of real economic resources——in the form of goods, services, salaries and transfer payments——from the US economy, which were paid for with IOUs. These obligations to be redeemed in equivalent goods and services were eventually purchased by the Fed, but with merely fiat credits it conjured out of thin air.

And then the monetary charlatans behind the curtain at the Fed send back to the US treasury the coupons earned on these airballs, causing the politicians to think the national debt is no problem; and that they can buy aircraft carriers and GS-15 salaries indefinitely while booking a “profit” on their borrowings.

Folks, this is just plain madness. Back 1989 when the real median household income first hit its current level of about $54,000, this entire monetization scam would have been considered beyond the pale by even the inhabitants of the Eccles Building, and most certainly by everyone else in Washington——from the US Treasury to the Congressional budget committees to the summer interns in the Rayburn Building.

But after 25 years of central bank induced financialization of the US economy, there has developed a cult of the stock market and a Wall Street regime of relentless financial gambling in the guise of “investment”. Consequently, the massive aritificial inflation of financial asset values is not even recognized by CNBC and its fellow travelers in the main stream financial press—to say nothing of the gleeful punters who inhabit the casino.

But here’s the thing. How did the real median household income stagnant at $54,000 while the real value of the S&P 500 soared by nearly 4X? market cap of US debt and equity issues soared from 200% to 540% of GDP, and now weigh in a $93 trillion?

Real Median Household Income Vs. Inflation Adjusted S&P 500 - Click to enlarge

Likewise, how did the aggregate “market cap” of US debt and business equity soar from 200% to 540% of GDP when main street living standards were not rising at all? Could it be that something rotten and deformed has been injected into the very financial bloodstream of American capitalism—-something which the CNBC cheerleaders dare not acknowledge or even allow conservative politicians to explore in a public forum?

Total Marketable Securities and GDP - Click to enlarge

Worse still, this entire Fed-driven regime of Bubble Finance has inculcated in the casino and its media megaphones the insidious notion that the arms and agencies of government exist for one purpose above all others. Namely, to do “whatever it takes” to keep the bubble inflated and the stock market averages rising—–preferably every single day the market is open.

There was no more dramatic demonstration of that proposition than after the Wall Street meltdown in September 2008 when the as yet un-house broken GOP had had the courage to vote down TARP.

But when they were dragged back into the House chambers by Goldman Sachs and its plenipotentiaries in the US Treasury, the message was unmistakable. On one side of the CNBC screen was the House electronic voting board and on the other side was the second-by-second path of the S&P 500.  And delivering the voice-over narrative were the same clowns who could not even mention the Fed last night. The US Congress not dare to vote down TARP again, they fulminated.

It obviously didn’t. Yet right then and there the conservative opposition was broken, and the present statist regime of Bubble Finance was off to the races.

During the coming decade the nation will be battered and shattered by a monumental fiscal crisis and the bankruptcy of the bogus “trust funds” which now pay out upwards of $2 trillion per year to 70 million citizens. At length, the bearers of pitchforks and torches descending on Washington will surely ask how this all happened.

But they will not need to look much beyond last night’s debate for the answers. The nation’s fiscal process has been literally shutdown by the Fed and the Wall Street gamblers and media cheerleaders who insouciantly and relentlessly demand of Washington that it do “whatever it takes” to keep the bubble inflated.

As a result, we have had the absurdity of 82 months of ZIRP and a orgy of public debt monetization that has driven the weighted average cost of the Federal debt to a mere 1.75%.  And when a few courageous remnants of fiscal sanity like Senators Cruz and Rand Paul have had the courage to resist still another increase in the public debt ceiling, they have been treated as pariahs by Wall Street and the kind of snarky financial media types on display last night.

The fact is, the President has clear constitutional powers to prioritize spending in the absence of an increase in the debt ceiling. That is, he can pay the interest on the debt, keep the Veterans hospitals open, send out the social security checks and prioritize any other category of spending that he chooses from the current inflow of tax revenues, and for as long as it takes to legislate an honest fiscal retrenchment.

Needless to say, that would create howls of pain from the Federal vendors who wouldn’t get paid, the state and local governments which would have to wait for their grant payments and the Federal employees who would be put on furlough.

But that is not the reason that Mitch McConnell and Johnny Lawnchair have capitulated every time a debt ceiling crisis has reached the boiling point. That kind of action-forcing circumstance was managed by Washington innumerable times in the pre-Bubble Finance world, including upwards of a dozen times during my time in the Reagan White House.

But back then no one thought that Wall Street would have a hissy fit if the government shutdown for a few days or if the fiscal gravy train was temporarily put on hold; nor did politicians much care if it did.

My goodness. Paul Volcker had taught Wall Street a thing or two about the requisites of financial discipline in any event.

No, what is different now is that the establishment GOP politicians are petrified of a stock market collapse, and have been brow-beaten into the false belief that a government shutdown will create severe political costs.

Baloney. Even the totally botched affair in October 2013 created no lasting damage—-as attested to by the GOP sweep in the 2014 elections.

At the end of the day, all the hyperventilation about the political costs of a government shutdown or the forced prioritization of spending in the absence of a debt ceiling increase is pure Wall Street propaganda; and its an untruth amplified and repeated endlessly, loudly and often hysterically by its financial media handmaidens.

At least last night some GOP politicians gave it back to them good and hard.

Maybe there is some hope for release from the destructive pall of Bubble Finance, after all.