A Dive off the Deep End

I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over this post, and deciding when would be the right time to take a crack at it, only really deciding last night that now’s as good a time as any to get it over with, especially in light of what I wrote about on Sunday, but we’ll get to that. Now, stop me if you’ve heard this one: a United States Senator appeared on Meet the Press, talking about the NSA and the dangerous surveillance powers it’s been given. He said this:

“If government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know…I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”

The Senator was Frank Church of Idaho, and the year was 1975, but his warning is more relevant than ever four decades on. The NSA hasn’t gotten any better, between the revelation of their massive collection of personal information on millions of Americans, or Director James Clapper’s lying about it under oath in front of Congress. Now, Clapper did see fit to retire after that minor oversight…this past November, more than three years after the fact. So yes, we still have intelligence agencies maintaining and even expanding surveillance activities, and far from operating within the law and under supervision, they’ve proven a willingness to break laws in order to dodge proper supervision by Congress. Of course, there’s hardly any arrests when this sort of misconduct does come to light. I wish I could tell you guys for sure why this never happens, but the best I can come up with is threefold: one, members of the intelligence community will retreat behind their walls of secrecy, and so long as they refuse to hand over incriminating evidence or testify against each other, securing convictions would be difficult. Second, members of Congress don’t want to be seen as impeding national security by hampering our intelligence gatherers. And lastly, we as a society just don’t expect any better. These sorts of shady activities have been in the public consciousness at least since the Church Committee and its related Congressional investigations over forty years ago, there weren’t any high-profile arrests then, either, and we’ve just accepted lawbreaking CIA spooks as a fact of life. It all goes back to faith, as I keep saying; we don’t have any faith that they can be punished, so we don’t care if they’re not.

Of course, the longstanding history of the deep state (the umbrella term for the CIA, FBI, NSA, and other military and intelligence outfits that make important policy decisions and actions without democratic oversight and accountability – and yes, I know that experts of Turkish and Egyptian government take issue with this term being used in democracies, but I don’t care, the difference between those countries and ours isn’t capacity, but abuse) and its treating the Fourth Amendment as a trifling inconvenience does raise another question. If the infrastructure for an American police state already exists, but it hasn’t been turned on an Administration’s domestic opposition in a flagrant or systemic way in all of this time, then what’s got me worried now? One thing: the various agencies that comprise the American deep state seem to be getting highly invested in domestic politics lately.

It’s only been a couple weeks since Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign for reasons that, depending on who you talk to, range from treasonous collusion with the Russian government before the election to being the fall guy in a shadow war between Trump and the CIA. Whatever else is true, it’s undeniable that Flynn had a bad relationship with the intelligence agency, and that the furor that led to his resignation began with an anonymous leak of his conversations with the Russian ambassador. It’s also easy to see a more widespread enmity between Trump’s Administration and the CIA, with high-profile former officials having endorsed Hillary Clinton during the campaign, part of the general trend of national security-oriented conservatives being the most skeptical of Trump. Apparently, the only Never Trumpers that ever mattered were in the deep state the whole time. Now, this isn’t to say that the deep state is a partisan monolith out to destroy Donald Trump. We all remember James Comey’s famous letter to Congress that, again, depending on who you talk to, was decisive in tipping the election against her. With the revelation that Trump was under FBI investigation himself at the time the letter was penned, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that yes, this double standard in disclosure was a deliberate attempt to influence the election, whether on Comey’s preferences or to appease those beneath him who may have preferred Trump. Regardless, we’re seeing a pattern whereby deep state agencies are taking advantage of the intelligence they gather and investigations they conduct, and selectively disclosing parts of these to the public in order to get what they want.

So, FBI=Republican, CIA=Democratic, then? No, I don’t think so. It’s not a good description of the CIA, and it’s probably oversimplifying the FBI, too. As for why the CIA really backed Hillary, what’s worrying when you dig into those CIA endorsements of her that I linked earlier is their conspiracy-mongering about Donald Trump and Russia, with former Acting Director Michael Morell calling him “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation”. Now, I’ll have something in the future on what I think about Russia and its influence in other countries’ politics, but hearing open Russophobia from the CIA kind of confirms my longstanding suspicions that they’ve never left the Cold War. This is a problem for any number of reasons, but what’s concerning here is that, well, the CIA went to some pretty extreme measures to combat Moscow during the Cold War, and didn’t show much respect for democracy at all along the way. To have an organization with that kind of track record decide it should pick winners and losers in American politics as well to me is just as unsettling as the alt-right. The difference between the two is that the CIA also has a successful track record of destroying the democracies it touches.

And that brings me to the reason I thought this post should follow the one from Sunday: the press. Trump has always been a ratings gold mine for the media, and the pressure to come up with more content, more stories about his troubled Administration makes them ideal patsies for deep state agencies looking to damage their rivals. Like I said on Sunday, the press is deeply dependent on government sources for access and corroboration of stories. The intelligence community is one part of government that’s not only able and willing to provide such access, but just the mere mention of “anonymous sources within the intelligence community” adds an imprimatur of additional gravitas to whatever half-baked assertion is coming next. That makes the leaks coming out of the Trump Administration dangerous – we can’t know what’s real and what’s politically motivated nonsense ourselves, since the Administration has already plumbed new depths of surrealism, and journalists are too credulous and desperate to do it themselves, so it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s false anymore. In this kind of environment, where uncertainty reigns, the deep state has all the reach, power, and outside credibility it needs to rule from the shadows.

On the Powerlessness of the Press

It seems so characteristically Trump to do what he did on Friday, and cancel his press secretary’s scheduled press briefing in favor of an off-camera event in which particular news outlets would be barred from attending. And yet, at the same time, it also seems like a logical progression in the American government’s relationship with the media that I can neither claim surprise or even as much dismay over this as I probably should. At its core, this decision just showcases the power dynamics between the press and the government and the way they’ve changed over time. Now, traditionally, we expect journalists to have power over the government, the power to investigate wrongdoing. And if the government puts up barriers in a reporter’s way, well, that’s a story in and of itself. Between public pressure for transparency and the ever-present potential for leaks and whistle-blowers, the truth should out one way or another.

Things have changed, though, and there’s one word that explains why: access. Simply put, journalists need access to government sources to write their stories, and that makes them dependent on the same government that they’re supposed to investigate and hold accountable for wrongdoing. And you can see that shift exemplified in the career of Bob Woodward, whose Watergate fame has ensured him lifetime access to the inner workings of different Administrations…so long as he limits his observations to anodyne book reports in the vein of Bush at War. And Washington is more than aware of this change in power, and they’ve been exploiting it long before Trump took office. Hell, it’s not even limited to people in government: it’s mostly been forgotten by now, but we should remember that during the Summer of 2015, Hillary Clinton’s campaign took some drastic measures to limit the free movement of reporters at her campaign events. When scenes like the one below go without much comment or outrage, you can’t expect the general public to go to bat for the Fourth Estate at all:

And we were wondering why the email issue was in the news for so long. Anyways, this all puts Trump’s actions in context, but we shouldn’t elide the danger. The muzzling of the media by government and campaigns is possible because of the media’s need for access and increasing difficulty in turning a profit in the digital age, but it’s happened without much public protest because most Americans don’t trust the media. And as much as I’d like to link this with the more general decline in trust in institutions, the Gallup poll I just linked will tell you that the decline has been asymmetric, with Republicans in particular believing that mainstream journalism is biased in favor of the left. And this has consistently been a part of Trump’s strategy from the beginning, accusing critical journalists of treating him unfairly, whether it’s Megyn Kelly or the Washington Post or whoever happens to be his particular bugbear today. By discrediting the sources of negative news about his Administration, he insulates his base from information sources that will say anything other than how hunky-dory his Presidency has been so far.

Now, it’s one thing for his Administration to discriminate against certain news agencies, but we’ll know we’re in real trouble if any of the networks that Trump has blacklisted start making concessions towards him and moderate their coverage in an attempt to get back in his good graces. And as gloomy as I’ve been in a lot of the posts I’ve written here, I still don’t see that as too likely. For one, journalists still have a lot of pride in the role they play in our democracy. As much as the Clinton camp may have disliked it, you could see that pride at work in their overzealous scandal-mongering of her presidential campaigns; they all aspired to be Bob Woodward, but the young Woodward, the one who did investigative reporting and could challenge the White House. And for another, Trump’s Administration hasn’t had a shortage of leaks so far, which means that outlets like the Washington Post aren’t starved for news items. All of this means that I still don’t really expect the Post or the New York Times or other outlets to start kowtowing to Trump; the harder they try to clamp down on negative coverage, the more leaks will slip through their fingers.

But while I’m managing expectations, I should also weigh in on the fragmentation of the news media. I’ve already written at some length about the polarization of America along geographic and moral lines, and it’s unsurprising that the media, driven by profit and rather desperate as it is, has catered to this divergence, with certain networks catering to specific sides of the divide. Now, the example of Fox is well known, but I’d say it’s also important to consider the example of MSNBC, which reinvented itself during the Bush Administration to be the left-leaning alternative to Fox; where it had previously welcomed the likes of Tucker Carlson, it’s now become the network of Rachel Maddow. Both networks can do what they want, of course, but what they’ve done is define a niche in which to market their respective products, as opposed to trying to appeal to the country as a whole. We just don’t have a Walter Cronkite anymore. And this has implications for the Trump Administration and whatever criminal misconduct may emerge from it. In this environment, I don’t expect a Watergate-level scandal anytime soon, even if Watergate-level or even worse wrongdoing comes to light, simply because scandal itself has become a partisan affair. The coverage simply wouldn’t reach over to the Fox-Breitbart side of the divide in the same form that it would appear in the New York Times. And even if it did, impeachment is still the responsibility of Congress, so I’m afraid that that will have to remain in the realm of liberal fantasy for the foreseeable future. None of this means the Fourth Estate shouldn’t do its level best to find the facts in what already seems a profoundly corrupt Administration, but whatever they find, we should still expect Trump to leave office not with a bang, but with a whimper, when his presidential term(s) expire.

South Korea and the Maturation of Democracy

One thing that I’m trying to accomplish with these posts isn’t simply to tell whoever reads them what I think about political principles and the news, but how I think about them. There’s obviously many different ways to approach an issue, and although ideology is one of them, others involve background and attitude. I’m an historian by inclination, so I tend to view things comparatively and through the lens of past experience. And so for an experiment of sorts, I’m gonna take a look at South Korean politics today. Now, there are some countries outside the United States where I’ve invested a reasonable amount of effort into understanding their political system and parties, so I at least can make some informed observations about what goes on there. The UK and France in particular, but I know a lot less about South Korean politics and parties, so the things I say here may prove to be dangerously off base, but that’s fine. Like I said, this is an experiment in style, and besides, we all could use a little intellectual humility every now and then.

Now, the main item of interest at the moment is obviously the fallout from the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye last December, for allowing Choi Soon-Sil, a political ally with no official position or clearances access to classified government information and even influencing government policies, a latter-day Rasputin. We’re no strangers to scandal in the States, of course, but it’s important to recognize just how deep the level of outrage was over this revelation in Korea; it sent Park’s approval ratings into the low single digits, and because South Korea has a strong tradition of civil disobedience, it also saw massive rallies calling for Park’s ouster before she was finally impeached. Now, all of this was hard to foresee on some level – I’ll just direct you guys to the appropriate Wikipedia page, because the tangled web of influence peddling seems like it’s just getting worse and worse the harder prosecutors look – but on another, I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised that something humiliating happened to Park, because there’s ample precedent. Park was preceded in office by Lee Myung-bak, of the same party and who’s faced allegations of nepotism and tax evasion, among other things. Before him, there was Roh Moo-hyun, who was investigated for bribery and who committed suicide a year after leaving office. His predecessor Kim Dae-jung had a pretty clean slate, but Kim’s predecessor Kim Young-sam caught the flak for South Korea getting caught in the 1997 East Asian financial crisis, which sent his approval ratings down to six percent, the lowest in South Korean history until recently with Park Geun-hye. In general, it seems more likely than not that a South Korean president will leave office with something terrible hanging over them.

Now, like I said, I like to compare things, and when I look at South Korea’s parties and politics, I can’t help but think of what America’s parties looked like in the 1800’s and 1810’s, and of the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists. The main thing to note here is that while modern American political parties are vehicles for ideology and culture, rivaling theories of justice, it wasn’t always so. We try to sort the D-R’s and the Federalists into our modern boxes of big vs. small government, Hamilton vs. Jefferson and all that, but it’s just not so neat. What mattered then (and may be reasserting itself) was regionalism; in those days, Northeast meant Federalist, anything else meant Democratic-Republican, no matter if you were as reactionary as John Calhoun or as relatively progressive as a James Madison. South Korean parties do have ideology, generally, with the Liberty Party (Park’s Saenuri Party until just this month) being to the right and the Minjoo Party representing the left. That said, there’s still a regional spread, as you can see from polling results preceding their latest parliamentary election (if you can’t see the names, red=Saenuri and blue=Minjoo):


2016 20대 총선 지역구.svg

As you can see, there’s a pretty clear geographic correlation in who you support, with the west of the country being split between Minjoo, the People’s Party, and some Saenuri pockets, with most of the rest going to Saenuri. The other thing to know about these parties is that they’re very much dominated by personal charisma of their leaders. The Saenuri Party traces its origins back to a forerunner party founded by the former military regime after they decided to hold elections, and Park Geun-hye herself is the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-Hee, who ruled the country for sixteen years. Likewise, the People’s Party was founded by Ahn Cheol- Soo, who went his own way after a falling out with the Minjoo Party. The point I’m getting at here is that it wouldn’t be surprising to look at the South Korean partisan arrangements – regionalist, personality-driven, scandal-prone – and attribute it to the growing pains of a democracy that’s still quite young, as these things go.

Now, I thought this myself for the longest time, but with the rise of right-wing populism with its deliberately amorphous policy agendas, plus the geographic polarization and sorting that I alluded to in the introductory post to this blog, I’m now wondering if ideologically-driven mass parties like we see in the United States, the UK, and elsewhere are the real anomalies, and old norms are reasserting themselves. If so, then South Korea’s current turmoil might have some lessons to offer not of our past, but of our future.

Checks and Balances – Do We Really Want Them Anymore?

One thing I intend to do as I continue writing in this space is to let my ideas build on each other, expanding on points made in previous posts in order to work towards larger ideas without making any individual entry too lengthy. That’s why I advise any current or future readers to tackle my entries in order from the beginning, and that’s especially true this time, since this post is going to be based on some ideas I touched upon on Thursday. In particular, I want to expand on the idea that we have partisan theories of justice, and that our conception of justice supersedes our faith in laws or institutions.

One of these institutional norms is the idea that the three branches of the federal government should check and balance each other. We all remember James Madison’s words on the subject: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition…[Y]ou must first enable the government to control the governed; in the next oblige it to control itself.” This wasn’t an idea that Madison and his contemporaries dreamed up themselves, of course; they were building on previous Enlightenment thinkers, Montesquieu in particular. Despite the importance of hedging against government becoming too tyrannical, I wonder if separation of powers is doing the work it’s supposed to anymore. And I don’t think I’m the only one who’s skeptical about this: as much as we’re required to venerate the Founders, and as much as every civics class in America will sing the praises of this arrangement by rote, I think we’ve moved away from the Madison-Montesquieu conception of well-designed government. And I see a few reasons why this might be the case. First, to the extent we still have checks and balances, they’re not an expression of the same dynamics that Madison envisioned. Second, our expectations of government are different from those of the Founders, and our government hasn’t changed enough accordingly. And lastly, to return to my previous entry, we just don’t have the same loyalty to procedure and institution that the Founders did.

Now then, the first issue becomes apparent when we look at what the Constitution provides for when it enumerates the powers of different branches of government, and compare to how things work nowadays. It’s primarily the President and Congress we should focus on here, because the Supreme Court has always been a bit more slippery and complicated. The other two branches, we all understand the dynamic: the President can veto acts of Congress, Congress can investigate or impeach the President, etc. In general, the two branches are supposed to have competing interests that keep the other from becoming too powerful, and in things like the War Powers Resolution, where Congress pretty clearly tried to circumscribe the President’s ability to get us into wars without Congress’ say-so, you can see that conflict even now. Thing is, though, that those kinds of clashes over territory are outliers now. As we all know, the real locus of political struggle now aren’t institutional, but partisan. So when President Obama faced a government shutdown by Congress, it wasn’t Congress vs. the President, it was Republicans vs. a Democrat. Now, some would say that’s fine, Federalist 51 talks about balancing factions, too, so long as somebody balances somebody, we’re good. But what if they don’t? What if, like right now, we have unified party control over the federal government? Then, we’re more likely to hear Senators complaining that it’s a waste of time “having Republicans investigating Republicans.” How is the general public supposed to believe in checks and balances when our elected officials themselves don’t?

The second issue is that, well, we don’t believe in checks and balances anymore. We may say we do when asked, but seeing it at work appalls us. Where your fair share of pundits (or Supreme Court Justices) can look at modern Washington gridlock and call it “just what the Framers intended”, the general public sees it as yet another sign of government dysfunction. And it makes sense when you consider that our expectations for what government should do for us have increased exponentially since the Constitution was laid down. Back in the 1790’s, we had no standing army; now, we have the world’s strongest military, global security commitments, and we’re held accountable every genocide or atrocity that happens on our watch. Back then, workplace safety and child labor laws were a distant dream of the future; now, we have a significant regulatory regime to enforce, as well as a substantial safety net for society’s most vulnerable. And for all of these responsibilities, government has to levy and enforce taxes. With so much more on the line, can we really afford to have Washington paralyzed by petty conflict between Congress and the President?

Lastly, we return to my final point in my previous post. No matter how much our faith in government is shaken, we all still have a conception of justice that we’d like to see the country embrace, and we join political parties that match our understanding of just government. That’s why Rand Paul refuses to investigate the Trump Administration too closely – he figures that so long as his and Trump’s understanding of justice are compatible, he’d be hurting his own cause by inconveniencing Trump (or he could be a craven coward afraid of Trump’s supporters, but that’s for you guys to decide if that’s true). This, more than anything, is why I think our Constitutional design is becoming obsolete; all things equal, institutions will generally try to check and balance each other, but partisanship upsets that balance by tying members of different institutions together behind a common ideology and theory of justice. And so long as our only defense against being tyrannized can be so easily infiltrated by ideologues, well, things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

So, whatever else is decided, I do think we need to accept that the system of checks and balances our Founders gave us is inadequate for the task of dealing with ideologically sorted political parties. It hasn’t seemed that way for most of American history (most), but it’s important to remember that the parties didn’t used to be as homogeneous and ideologically opposed to each other as they are now. Ralph Nader whined about Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, but back in the 1890’s, the Democrats and Republicans were both full of right-wing business fanatics, and twenty years later, they were both embracing the reforms of progressives, with 1912 giving us three progressive candidates at once in Wilson, Taft, and Roosevelt. We’re in danger now because the parties aren’t just factions; they’re causes and they’re cultures. Clearly, any effective checks and balances system will have to take that into account, should we ever get out of gridlock long enough to design something. That still leaves the question of whether checks and balances are still desirable in a world where we expect so much more from our government, and gridlock can cost lives. I have many thoughts on this, but in general I think conflict within the publicly elected branches of government isn’t the most important safeguard we could have against government overreach. But I’ll get to that some other time, when I talk about government transparency and the deep state.

The Faith-Based Society

I had definitely planned to get back to this project before now, but sometimes life throws you curveballs, and a tragic family emergency plus some fairly mundane writer’s block have kept me away from this space for a while. Now that I’m back, I should clarify my schedule to anyone who hopes to follow this blog regularly, something I didn’t explain in the introduction. But basically, I intend to follow a biweekly posting schedule, with posts taking place on Thursdays and Sundays, at or before noon Eastern Time. Now that that’s clear and a public commitment on my part moving forward, hopefully I can be expected to update more regularly. I also reserve the right to make smaller posts more frequently, but I’ll see if I have time/motivation for those.

Now then, I’m trying to focus less on specific news items and more on broad themes of American politics and society, to make sure that my writings don’t get overtaken by events so easily and can remain relevant. Sometimes, though, you just get pre-empted by somebody else who anticipates your idea and runs with it. In this case, I wanted to write about faith and its role in a functioning society, only to find that an excellent piece was written on the subject only a couple weeks ago. I’ll get to that elephant in a bit, but first I want to talk about faith. Society is dependent on faith to function; not necessarily faith in God, but faith in institutions, faith in money, and most of all, faith in other people, that they’ll try and do the right thing. More specifically, I think this has implications for what people perceive as a potential breakdown in rule of law in this country under President Trump. I understand these concerns, of course, but they belie a greater truth: namely, that one can’t expect rule of law to be relevant in American society as it stands.

You see, there’s a distinction between law and justice, and while most Americans are neither philosophers nor lawyers, I think we have an intuitive understanding of the difference. Not that this is surprising, given how our national mythology is bound up in a revolution against laws that our forebearers considered unjust. We’re maybe a little too conscious of the fact that laws are different from justice. But that’s where faith comes in; one important measure is our faith that our laws and the institutions that enforce them are just, and it’s not news to say that that faith is at all-time lows. And actually, the point about laws needing to be enforced is a significant one. Public opinion is a major driver in whether laws are upheld or not, and if Americans don’t trust the institution that’s trying to enforce a law, they’re not going to be too outraged if said law gets flaunted. Given Americans’ record-high contempt for our Congress, it’s hard to imagine Congress being able to rally the public around something like the Church Committee in this day and age. Now, if Congress were to take on the excesses of the CIA, I think Americans would be most concerned with the fact that they couldn’t both lose. On the flip side, the police still have the trust of most Americans, so their ability to do their jobs is unimpaired by our crisis of faith in other institutions. Plus, well, they don’t need to worry about political pressure to enforce compliance so long as they have guns. But most other law enforcement organizations in this country (and I’d argue that there are quite a few, including the Supreme Court and Congress) rely on political pressure to ensure the law is upheld.

All of that brings me to the piece I mentioned earlier that anticipates so much of this argument. David Frum over at The Atlantic has penned a truly harrowing article speculating on the ways in which Donald Trump can erode our democratic fabric, allowing our political system to decay into an amoral kleptocracy favoring himself and his allies. There’s a lot of material in there about corruption and the ability of the President to foster it through pardons and other legal stonewalling, plus the unwillingness of a Republican Congress to restrain their own party leader, but the section that most concerns me is when Frum writes about Trump’s ability to weaponize cynicism. “A would-be kleptocrat is actually better served by spreading cynicism than by deceiving followers with false beliefs,” he writes, “Believers can be disillusioned; people who expect to hear only lies can hardly complain when a lie is exposed. The inculcation of cynicism breaks down the distinction between those forms of media that try their imperfect best to report the truth, and those who purvey falsehoods for reasons of profit or ideology.”By dirtying the very concept of objective truth and reporting, Trump can make his critics in the press toothless without going so far as to silence them. Through erosion of faith, he makes the idea of challenging him a partisan proposition, and on that front he can always expect 50 percent of the country to stand with him.

Like I said, it’s all about faith. If faith in the truth and faith in institutions can’t be sustained, then faith in justice is all we have to fall back on, because no matter how insane the world gets, we’ll still be able to hang onto at least an idea of what’s right or wrong. And what’s more, our understanding of justice is inextricably bound up in our partisan identity and ideology. Democrats claim a moral imperative in protecting women’s right to choose, and Republicans claim the same mandate to protect the unborn. They’re both theories of justice, and they’re both fundamentally incompatible.  And this is why, as threatening as I find Trump, I still consider him a symptom of this deeper conflict between law and justice. There remains some modicum of fidelity to the law in this country: that’s why Hillary Clinton conceded defeat to Trump despite winning the popular vote. But for how long can that be sustained? When following the laws as written is to the other Party’s advantage, it leads to policy and outcomes that your side considers unjust. That’s something that Americans will only accept for so long as tearing down our Constitutional order seems the greater injustice. But if the decay of social faith continues, then not only will our rule of law seem like an acceptable sacrifice on the altar of partisanship, but also an acknowledgement of what really came to pass a long time ago.


An Introduction: Class and the Politics of Place

This is the post excerpt.

Hello, friends, and welcome to Pivot Points, my personal attempt to identify and grapple with the important issues of life. You see, instead of taking the traditional approaches to deciding what matters, which would lead me to concern myself with either everything or nothing at all, I’m taking this third option, arbitrarily choosing certain topics to write about here and pretending that careful choices underlie my scribbling instead of flights of fancy. These will probably revolve around politics and other news items, with maybe some digressions about cartoons or music here and there, but once I get comfortable with this format, who knows, I could find inspiration from all sorts of places.

Now, I’ll begin with some ruminations on class identity and American political parties. I think it’s safe to say that both the Democratic and Republican parties face identity crises right now, not sure what they do, or should stand for, and who they represent, hence the contentious primary seasons they both enjoyed. Now, the state of the modern Republican Party is infinitely fascinating, as their far-right Freedom Caucus wing comes to terms with the idea that their base hadn’t, in fact, been demanding a perpetual march to the right, or at least had renounced that desire in voting for somebody as ideologically amorphous as Donald Trump. Still, those issues and internal contradictions will be hashed out on a day to day basis as the GOP tries to govern, with the kind of comprehensive state and federal power they haven’t enjoyed since the 1920’s. We’ll all learn the hard way what they stand for, and, well, as a leftist myself, if I did have any useful insights to offer them about their direction, I’d probably be inclined to withhold them anyways. So instead, I’ll focus on the Democrats, who have the time while in opposition to rediscover themselves on their own terms, locked out of power as they are.

One thing I’m gonna try to do periodically as I write these blog entries is to try and articulate some general principles and observations of American politics that I’ve either discovered or postulated myself over a decade plus of political engagement. The first thing to keep in mind about the parties is that they’re opposed, but they are not mirror images of each other. Republicans see smaller government as an end in itself, but whereas Democrats often want to expand government to provide more services to the needy, they don’t see the expansion as a good by itself, but only as a means to an end. By the same token, it’s occurred to me over the course of the Party’s post-Trump recrimination that while Republicans don’t concern themselves so much about what class their Party represents, Democrats care a great deal about being seen as the champions of the working class. And as the Sanders-Clinton fractures from the primary have ruptured open again in response to November’s defeat, a major bone of contention is just how well the Party does in the role of representing the poor, and to what degree has that mantle been usurped by Trump’s GOP. And this question underlies all of the attempts by the left to determine what motivated Trump’s white working class base to turn out for him, because if they did so for economic issues more than racial animus, then it follows that the Democrats have failed in their responsibilities to protect the poor, or at least in being understood as protecting the poor. Out of all of this, you get pieces like those from Vox’s Dylan Matthews arguing that Trump’s base is really quite well-off and doesn’t deserve our pity.

And you know what? Maybe he’s right. The numbers are there (and backed by Nate Silver as well), voters in general tend to be better off than the general population, and, well, the working class includes disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics who are generally Democrats. So Democrats remain the party of the poor…but the thing is, they’re also the party of the well-educated, and that means that they attract a lot of rich voters as well. There’s a reason that Democrats have been able to pull even with Republicans in campaign spending despite their traditional disadvantage. So, if Democrats represent both the top and the bottom of the income ladder in their coalition, then where does that leave us, class-wise? Now, one answer is to ditch the class distinctions altogether, and focus on the identitarian issues that divide Democrats from Republicans, with the former representing women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, and others who value cosmopolitanism and tolerance as opposed to the hidebound cultural conservatism that animates the GOP. And while these are all important features to help shape the Democrats and help define our values moving forward, I think there’s still something left that can be mined out of the old Marxist narrative of differing economic interests.

At this point, I think an illuminating piece from March of 2016 by Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative helps offer a different model for understanding economic debate in a globalized world. We understand issues of trade as a conflict between the rich and the working class, where the workers lose their manufacturing jobs to foreign competition, while the one percent pocket the difference, but there’s more to it than that. First, as any free trade advocate will tell you, the reduction in wages suffered by the manufacturing workers will be made up for by lower prices on consumer goods. I have reservations about this model that I’ll share some other time, but let’s just go with it. The point is that trade and globalization will disproportionately hurt some workers, but other members of the same economic class might prove to be beneficiaries of these processes instead. Dreher cites a Weekly Standard expose on the political changes in France brought about by globalization. A money line from this is: “Why would you expect Paris to have a middle class? Paris’ prospects have improved because it has specialized…[T]he jobs that the middle class used to do all over France – manufacturing, mostly – are best done elsewhere.” The key here isn’t a decline in manufacturing, but a relocation of it.

Some other time I’ll talk about demographic sorting, but what matters for right now is that American society, like French society, has segregated itself. Why couldn’t Democrats retake the House of Representatives in 2012 despite winning more Congressional votes? Gerrymandering, yes, but also because Democratic voters are concentrated in cities and university towns. This includes both the rich and educated members of the coalition as well as poor minorities. What do these groups have in common? They’re the ones for whom globalization works. And this is borne out by the numbers, too: don’t let Sanders’ campaign or Hillary Clinton’s about-face on the TPP fool you, Democrats actually favor free trade by large margins now. What matters in American politics now isn’t class, or even necessarily race, but geography. I said I’d explain my free trade reservations later, but one thing that needs to be understood right now is that its cheerleaders only consider net good for a society that trades. The problem is that the benefits tend to be more diffuse, but the damage is concentrated – just ask the Rust Belt. Trump’s voters aren’t poor, per se, but they’re the losers in globalization, and doing bad isn’t as bad as doing worse than you were in the past.

So, where does that leave us terms of helping out the communities that are being hit hard by trade and other economic forces? To be honest, I don’t know. Trump hasn’t lifted a finger to help them out so far, and neither have other Republicans. The irony is that their communities are, if anything, overrepresented in Congress, but it doesn’t matter because their elected representatives were co-opted by global interests decades ago. Maybe we do need a Sanders figure to reach out to them, but that’s just a campaign measure, and it still doesn’t address the original question of what Democrats stand for going forward. We can be the Party of Globalization’s winners, and we can be the Party of the Poor in theory, but to really honor the spirit of the second title, we do need to give some thought to globalization’s losers, too. It’s the liberal thing to do.