Posted in Rants on January 5th, 2017 by Ed

An internet friend recently posted an article from November on the rise of a far-right government in Poland. Being descended from four grandparents born in Poland I make a passing effort to stay abreast of its politics, although in practice I usually find that my attention-hands are full with everything the American system throws at us.

For two years now, astute Americans have seen the rise of Trump on our side of the Atlantic as the American version of something that has been an undercurrent in Europe since the fall of the USSR. Every European democracy has its ultra-right parties defined by enthnocentrism and extreme nationalism. In the U.S., because the rules of our system default us to two very large parties, we have seen this only as a part of the Republican coalition. In the 1980s and 1990s, someone like Pat Buchanan was an aberration. He was part of the Big Tent of the GOP but considered even among his compatriots as the Crazy Uncle. After the Great Recession began in 2007, it started to become apparent that lower-class white nationalism in the form of the Tea Party was not the small component of the American Right that mainstream GOPers wanted everyone to believe. What was once the fringe was clearly on its way to becoming the majority within the GOP, and the appeals they used to gain popularity in the increasingly old, increasingly white, and increasingly socially and economically marginalized Republican masses seemed novel to Americans but were no doubt quite familiar to any European used to the antics of their nation's own far right. Nationalism. Conspiracies. Cries of traitorous intentions. Rejection of anything originating from Liberal institutions like universities, the media, expertise, or reality out of hand. Division of the world into a We and a Them.

One striking difference, though – and the idea that caused my friend to post this article and raise the question – is the heavy emphasis in the European far right on distributive policies that is totally absent in the United States. In Europe they do as all populist parties, left and right, have always done to solidify and build support: they promise to give people things. They use the resources of the state and of power in an exchange theory of politics; vote for us and you will get X, Y, and Z in return. Sometimes those variables would be intangible things like national pride or increased social status relative to other groups. But they always, as in Poland today, include economic handouts in the mix as well.

Why is the American right such a stark exception to this pattern around the world? Populism and the distribution of government largesse go hand in hand everywhere but here. Part of the answer is that anti-government, pro-individualism ideology is much more prominent in the U.S. than it is elsewhere. The other, bigger problem is that American society is not nearly as homogeneous as most countries in Europe. And that's a problem because the American nationalists can't figure out a way to shower the poor with money without letting people who aren't white get some of it. Donald Trump would have done what every nationalist-right figure in Europe does, which is campaign with promises of restoring the correct order of things in society (check) and appealing to the economically adrift by promising them money (strike) – if only he could have found a way to give it exclusively to white people.

The people who respond to Trump's appeals understand this implicitly. Many of them are poor and not the slightest bit opposed to welfare in practice no matter how much they decry it in theory. What they oppose is other people – the wrong people, the not-one-of-us people, the brown people – getting any of what they see as their entitlement. They want the disability and SSI checks, the make-work jobs, the Medicaid, the state-run treatment programs, the school funding, and all the other handouts that Republicans claim they oppose on principle. Trump's appeal to poorer whites has been beaten to death, and they are a demographic that has no problem taking any of these things. The problem is finding a way to promise them more of it without letting any of it fall into the hands of The Other – the immigrants, the blacks and Hispanics, the people in big cities, and so on.

In a country like Poland this is easier to do because the society is, at least compared to the U.S., sorely lacking in diversity. It's a very white, very Catholic, very ethnically unified country for the most part due to, uh, some stuff that happened between 1940 and 1945. So targeting voters requires only targeting them by economic and social class. Here, where African-Americans, Hispanics, and recent immigrants are overrepresented in the part of the population broadly labeled Poor, railing against The Other and The Outsider is complicated. What happens when The Outsiders are not an amorphous mass outside the borders, but other citizens to whom you are equal in theory but need to feel superior to in practice?

Well. What happens is, things get tricky. You end up with a president trying to gut the welfare state while somehow preserving it for Certain People, the Right People, wink wink. You end up with a president who preaches the free market but engages in crony capitalism to save, temporarily, the jobs of the Right People. You have a set of policies and actions that conform to no ideology because the ideology underlying it is white nationalism and, well, you can't just say that's the ideology.

The barbarians outside the gate have always been an effective foil for political rhetoric and populism in particular. In Poland today, the (Muslim) horde at the gate of Europe drives the far right's recent rise. In the United States, the barbarians are not at the gate. They're already inside it. The challenge is not distinguishing Americans from Others, but Real Americans from the Not Real ones. The system for telling which one is which, to the American nationalist, is as uncomplicated as it is unspoken.


Posted in Rants on January 4th, 2017 by Ed

If someone running for office insists that government is bad you can rest assured that if they get elected the government that follows will in fact be very bad. Anything else would undermine the premise upon which he won support. When we are critical of the government we get from such people we are speaking past one another. A necessary part of proving that private enterprise or the free market or Jesus or rugged individualism or whatever can do something better than the state is setting the bar so low that crony capitalism can't help but trip and fall over it. To tell a modern conservative that what they advocate is bad public policy offers no new information to anyone involved in the conversation; the whole point is to make it as bad as possible.

The same is true of the consequences of policy changes, which liberals often interpret as bugs when they are in fact the main feature. Repealing Obamacare will cost many people who cannot otherwise afford it their health insurance? Yes, that's the whole point to right wingers. More poor people getting sick and dying is something close to an autoerotic fantasy for conservatives. They lie, including to themselves, and pretend that what they advocate is some kind of solution, but they're not very good at convincing anyone. They know that tax cuts for the wealthy aren't going to Trickle Down and create anything for the rest of the country, but they know they need something better than "Look, we just really want the tax cuts and couldn't give half a shit what happens to working people" when they're on camera.

The mistake Our Side makes so often (see Obama's first couple years in office) is assuming that the right is acting In Good Faith and earnestly desires the best policy and the best government. This is a poor assumption. They just want to get what is best for themselves, and they believe that their political opponents have the same motivation – i.e., that poor people vote for left wing candidates just to get free stuff from the rich taxpayers and the noise about improving society as a whole is a smokescreen. In this way, politics to the current American conservative is a zero sum game of resource competition. The talk about policy objectives and grand strategies for a better society is a shiny coat of paint over everyone's true motives.

Keep this in mind as the Secretary-to-be of the Department of Education, Betsey Devos, is approved by the Senate in the coming weeks. Her selection in November brought the moribund issue of charter schools back into the national conversation, if briefly, and will do so moving forward. Since I get a paycheck in higher education, this issue does not affect me directly but I do have an awful lot of K-12 educators in my social circle. I see people argue in circles about charter schools regularly and to no effect. Right wingers chant School Choice like it is the prayer that will get them into heaven; liberals fire back statistics proving that at their top-dollar best, charter schools are roughly as good as public schools once we account for their power to take only those students they choose to take. Again, these two viewpoints are at cross purposes. The left assumes that charter school advocates 1) believe that charter schools are better and 2) are interested in "better schools" as the ultimate goal.

A full summary of the conservative movement's support for things like vouchers and charter schools is as follows: it's cheaper.

The way they see it, half the kids coming out of public schools today are basically illiterate. To them, this is fine. We have enough competition for the kinds of jobs a college degree is supposed to qualify one for as it is. Our options are to pump a ton of money into public schools and maybe see some incremental improvement in outcomes, or we can just create a system that selects out the half-decent students for a real education and future and then warehouse the rest until they're no longer minors and they're ready for the prison-poverty-violence cycle to Hoover them up. Vouchers and Charter Schools are not, to the conservative mind, a better way to educate kids well. They are a cheaper way to educate them poorly. What matters is that it costs less to people like six-figure income earners and home owners. Those people can afford to send their kids to a decent school anyway. Public education, to their way of thinking, used to be about educating people just enough that they could provide blue collar or service industry labor. Now that we have too much of that, a public high school is just a waiting room for prison. So why throw money into it? They don't think education "works" anyway; people are born Good or Bad, Talented or Useless. So it only makes sense to find the cheapest possible way to process the students who were written off before they reached middle school. If charter schools manage to save 1% of them, great. If not, well, then they're no worse than public schools. And they're cheaper! Did I mention that they're cheaper?

When two people are trying to put together a puzzle, it's not going to go very well if one person is pointing at the box and saying, "Look, we're trying to put together a sailboat" and the other is off trying to rearrange the pieces to make a dinosaur. Both will fail, but at least in this case they'd understand that they failed because they had radically different goals. The big difference in our political system is that the dinosaur guy smiles real big and swears he's trying to help you make a sailboat, then resumes his task as soon as he gets his hands on the pieces.


Posted in Rants on January 2nd, 2017 by Ed

(Editor's note: The Lieberman Award is given annually to the worst example of a human being over a twelve month period. Click the tag at the end of the post to review past winners.)

medalEnough ink has been spilled over Donald Trump and the people who made his rise to political power possible. I owe you more than to do something as obvious as declare the president-elect the worst human being of 2016. You'd have to go back to Hitler to find an equivalent example of one human being who was so singularly responsible for ruining an entire 12-month period for such a large number of people. But I thought it would be more interesting to take a closer look at someone you heard almost nothing about in comparison, someone you may even have completely forgotten about. Besides, Trump won this award last year.

Why Tim Kaine? What did Tim Kaine ever do to anyone? He was almost a total non-entity in 2016, yet he symbolizes everything that went wrong with Hillary Clinton's campaign and the strain of Democratic Party politics that has proven itself time and again to be a disaster. In the true spirit of the Lieberman Award, Kaine is the embodiment of the New Democrat centrism that sounds suspiciously like being a moderate Republican. His choice as the running mate is, in hindsight, one of the clearest signs that Clinton still doesn't Get It, writ large.

Certainly there are some merits to picking Kaine. He has extensive elected experience which made him a good choice for the Clinton campaign's strategy (which I talked about over the summer) of giving Americans a clear choice between Adults in the Room and a disorganized lunatic. Even with the benefit of hindsight it isn't the worst strategy ever conceived; it simply has the fatal flaw of giving the American public a little bit of credit for intelligence. It is premised upon the belief that voters aren't really going to turn the country over to a lunatic just because they're angry and his opponent is short on charisma. That turned out to be a bad gamble.

Really, what is Tim Kaine but a time capsule from the W Bush era, a Democrat perfectly designed to win a statewide election in a reddish-purple state circa 2006? He is the culmination of the Bill Clinton-led New Democrat movement in the early 90s that posited that the best way for Democrats to win elections was to do most of the things Republicans do but, I dunno, seem a little less bloodless and unhip while doing it? People like Kaine are a way for educated white people to vote for a Republican without having to feel bad about themselves because the name has "D" after it. The turn to Eisenhower Republicanism produced some short-term success for Democrats, but the 2016 Clinton campaign is likely to be its Waterloo.

As another writer put it, Tim Kaine is Civil Unions. Tim Kaine is every half-assed compromise position that New Democrats have proposed over the past 25 years in the belief that what voters really want is a candidate who thinks a lot and kinda refuses to take a firm position on anything. He is the personification of the belief that trying to please all of the people all of the time is both possible and desirable. Is Kaine the worst human being on Earth? Of course not. But he is an excellent case study in a political ideology so bankrupt that it could not stand up against a candidate who ran literally as a joke and was as shocked as anyone that he won anything.

For everyone who criticized Hillary as a wishy-washy, right-leaning panderer who sees herself as entitled to the nomination of her party, Kaine is Exhibit A. This guy has zero future. He's an anachronism in 2016; by 2020 or 2024 he will be a fossil. He has no appeal to the kind of voters the Clinton campaign as a whole could not rally to their cause. In an increasingly multiracial, urban country, Tim Kaine is the argument in 2004 that what a candidate really needs to do is appeal to enough soccer moms and NASCAR dads.

Tim Kaine may be a nice guy. He has done some impressive things for Virginia and as a civil rights litigator. But as a presidential running mate in 2016 he only reinforced the fatal attachment of a lot of the Democratic Party power structure to a thoroughly outdated and failed set of ideas. He is a relic of the time when the Party could conceive of no other way to win better than to be more like Republicans and hope that real GOPers were personally repugnant enough (and they often were) to repulse voters. He is the poster child for a party faction that stands for nothing because it is so eager to stand for whatever it believes you want to hear from it.

Congratulations, Tim Kaine. You seemingly were cast into the dustbin of history before this campaign was even over, but you will now be immortalized forever as the winner of the 2016 Lieberman Award. Go. Go away. And take Donna Brazile with you.