Apr 22, 2016

April 22, 2016: Babbling Brooks, Experience Slow to Instruct, Giving Voice to Doubt


 
Political commentator and columnist David Brooks wrote in a recent “New York Times” (1) essay lamenting the emergence of Donald Trump that Trumpism, such as it is, represents a paradigm shift in conservative thinking and, by extension, an opportunity to redefine conservatism.  The problem, as always with conservatism is that, as the Brooks’ effort clearly demonstrates, conservatives first fail to recognize the shortcomings of their own intellectual constructions and secondly they fail further to recognize the brazen internal contradictions between their major and minor premises and the conclusions they divine therefrom.  The result, all too predictably are babbling Brooks of nonsense.

Brooks rightly now describes the current Republican malaise as “groaning under the Reagan Orthodoxy” (2) that somehow went from a Rising Tide America to a Coming Apart America.

Now along comes Trump whom Brooks describes as an “Angel of Destruction”, blowing to “smithereens” the comfortable old bromides.  “He represents not only a rejection of the existing Reaganite establishment, but also a rejection of Reaganite foreign policy (he is less globalist) and Reaganite domestic policy (he is friendlier to the state).”  Trump, in Brooks’ view is “prompting what Thomas Kuhn, in his theory of scientific revolutions, called a model crisis”.  Declaring Trump totally devoid of any ideas or policies, Brooks concludes that Trump “will almost certainly go down to a devastating defeat either in the general election or—God help us—as the worst president in American history.” (3) 

But, alas for Brooks at least, every looming political catastrophe bears a silver lining.  Now is the chance, he writes, for a “mental purging: casting aside many existing mental categories and presuppositions, to shift your identity from one with a fixed mindset to one in which you are a seeker and open to anything.  The second step is probably embedding: going out and seeing America with fresh eyes and listening to American voices with fresh ears….” (4)

Brooks then waxes on about the need to replace the soulless and loveless Trumpist vision with compassion, moving conservative doctrine to a more sociologically compassionate philosophy and away from the fetish conservatives demonstrate for tax cuts, enterprise zones, and the “utility-driven individual”. “Somehow”, Brooks writes, “the Republican Party will have to rediscover a language of loving thy neighbor…. because today’s problems relate to binding a fragmenting society, reweaving family and social connections, relating across the diversity of a globalized world.  Homo economicus is a myth and conservatism needs a worldview that is accurate about Human nature.” (5)   Indeed, so it does.

Again, to paraphrase Gibbon, if with regard to our conservative brethren “experience is powerless to instruct”, we must at least give Brooks credit here for some well-intentioned, if not long overdue soul-searching.  It is not often that we find this kind of courage exhibited so publicly among the chattering class.

But, alas, our friend has miles to go before he sleeps.  We can begin with the failure to honestly apprehend our national experience.  Referring to the legacy of his patron Saint Ronald Reagan, Brooks openly declares that “We’ve gone from Rising Tide America to Coming Apart America”, from the “Reagan worldview…based on the idea that a rising tide would lift all boats. But that’s clearly no longer true.” (6)  It never was.

Brooks, like all of the chattering class, the myriad talking heads that sometimes enlighten but often pollute the airwaves, is a victim of his own self-imposed myopia.  He has spent a lifetime caught in the confines of the Washington Beltway and the conservative echo-chamber.  The fact is that had he made even a modest effort to expand his horizons and, therefore, his peripheral vision, he would have discovered that the Kennedy, not Reagan, dictum that a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ while administered by a good Liberal-Democratic administration became, in malignant conservative hands, more properly “a rising tide lifts all yachts”. 

To discover this, Brother Brooks would not have been required to read the collective works of Karl Marx, or even those of Jeremy Bentham.  He would not have been required to consult with pols like Ted Kennedy, or even a Bernie Sanders.  He would not have had to search in vain for a conservative stink-tank offering an alternative point of view.  All he would have had to do was consult the likes of Kevin Phillips—author of Nixon’s Southern Strategy—and longtime card-carrying Republican who has written extensively about the lingering effects of Reaganomics.  Beginning in the late 80’s right after Reagan left office, Phillips began to publish the early returns and by 1993 he declared straightforwardly in his book “Boiling Point” (7), that the middle class had lost ground, if not taken a thrashing, under Reagan—even during the High Tide period of the 80’s when the policies first went into effect.  It hasn’t got any better in the ensuing quarter century as administrations both Democratic and Republican have ratified the inspired stupidity of what the host of “Death Valley Days” had wrought.  The returns have been in now for over quarter century, we are now nearly two generations into this failed experiment and only now a lonely soul far off on the political wrong begins to give voice to doubt.  It has been a long time coming.

What I am suggesting here is that Brooks has not gone nearly far enough in casting aside long held categories and presuppositions, beginning of course with the category that man is entirely a utility-driven economic animal and with the supposition that unfettered capital will ‘raise all boats’.  The first is a deeply one-dimensional, if not completely self-serving (from the view of the capitalist elites) proposition and the second has never been demonstrated in the whole of human experience.  Indeed, precisely the opposite occurs with nauseating certainty. 

Secondly the conclusions divined by late 20th century conservatism are wholly at odds, it should now be painfully apparent with the objective, empirical, measurable reality—as writers like Phillips have so laboriously and conclusively demonstrated.  Plainly one simply cannot institute a regime in which a form of Social Darwinism is fostered which does not in the end strain the social, economic and political bonds to the breaking point.  A clear contradiction emerges in which the “freedom” of those who through effort and intelligence, or inheritance and sloth, assume such massive advantages as to stifle the aspirations if not the very well-being of the rest of society.  Society bifurcates into the Have’s and Have-Not’s.  The Middle Class gives ground, as does the ‘political center’.   Politics becomes a reflection of the divisions now deep in a society coming apart. 

It's the Coming Apart America, in Brooks phrase, that Trumpism represents.  In subsequent columns Brooks admonishes us to forge ‘intermediate’ relationships, and make ‘Covenants’ with each other (8).  All that is well and good but he is overlooking the necessary first step and that is to recognize the damage that Reagan had wrought and to repudiate it. “Reagan orthodoxy”, wrote Brooks, “…. was right for the 1980’s but has become increasingly obsolete” (9).  This represents not even the first step toward honesty.  No, David.  Reagan Orthodoxy is a purely 19th century construct and was obsolete at conception; that it ill-suited the 1980’s has been demonstrated by your fellow conservative and former Republican Kevin Phillips.   No, David, there are reasons why the country and your movement is groaning under the weight of the Reagan Orthodoxy and that is that it never worked. 

And now, your movement and your party are finally being abandoned as those who create the wealth through their labor have become painfully aware that they do not share the same interests or the same world-view as those who appropriate the value of that labor and manage it for their own selfish ends.

Trump would be the worst president in American history?  That is quite an assertion betraying a pique unbecoming a man revisiting the country with fresh eyes and ears.  In any case it may be an abyss too far.  It is, for instance, difficult to imagine a President Trump sending troops off to the frontier as states secede from the union, or playing guitar while a major city drowns.

_____

(1). Brooks, David. “The Post-Trump Era” “New York Times” March 25, 2016.  Page A23

(2). ibid

(3). ibid

(4). ibid

(5). ibid

(6). ibid

(7). see Phillips, Kevin. “Boiling Point: Democrats, Republicans, and the Decline of Middle-Class Prosperity”. 1993 Random House, New York. 307 pages

(8). Brooks, David. “How Covenants Make Us” “New York Times”  April 5, 2016. Page A23

      Brooks, David.  “How to Fix Politics” New York Times” April 12, 2016. Page A23

(9). Op Cit

 

Apr 10, 2016

April 7, 2016: Lessons from Michigan, Finding the Party, Myopia Strikes Deep


 
For years the Ionia Democratic Party has held its annual ‘G. Mennen Williams’ memorial dinner on the infield at the Ionia Free Fair.  One such conclave, in the early 1990’s celebrated as it’s featured guest speaker one Debbie Stabenow, now senior Senator from the State of Michigan but then a State Senator known primarily for giving Rescumlican John Engler his entire first-term agenda by agreeing to shift funding of the public schools from property to income taxes.  Engler parlayed the victory into another two terms as governor continuing a campaign to further erode the well-being of the state.  Stabenow went on to the United States Senate.

I remember her appearance at the dinner, held annually under a tent on the infield next to a permanently constructed stage upon which, over the years, performed Tiny Tim, Jefferson Starship, Alabama, Willie Nelson and a host of other notables.  After her speech, I had occasion to engage in a rather lengthy exchange with the state Senator.

Kevin Phillips had recently published his work “The Politics of Rich and Poor”, declaring in decisive and convincing terms the abject failure of Reaganomics.  I brought up the subject, prefacing the author’s role as the architect of Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’.  I could see her eyes glaze over at the mere suggestion of anything of importance being associated with Republicanism this, after all, being a partisan occasion.  Nevertheless, given her willingness to work with even the most abject swine (Engler), I found myself confused.  It was clear, however that no matter the extent to which I tried to drive home the point that ‘trickle-down’ is not, has not, and never will work, the work of ‘rendering the obvious, obvious’ was lost upon our intrepid politician.  Alas, Michigan’s now senior Senator is a part of the ‘generation of swine’ that emerged in the 1980’s and affiliated itself with the Clinton-led Democratic Leadership Council.  She along with former Michigan Governor Jim Blanchard, best known for “putting Michigan behind bars” by incarcerating so many of the state’s citizens that for the first time the Department of Corrections became the largest state agency dwarfing even the monies spent on roads and schools, was part of the emerging Democratic Political Elite that did it’s level best to ape the Republicans by not only ratifying the Reagan Reaction but appropriating the Republican agenda itself.  Clearly, I sensed, I was wasting my breath.

But there was more.   During the course of the exchange the conversation included several other members of the local party some expressing gratitude that the senator (albeit at state rather than federal level) had condescended to travel to central and western Michigan.  You see we don’t see much of our elected Democratic office holders here in this part of the state.  Stabenow replied that the visit is a notable exception, that the real effort to win elections in Michigan involve concentrating along the I-75 corridor, from Detroit and Ann Arbor through Flint, Saginaw, Pontiac and Bay City.  Here, it is held lies the keys to Democratic victory and dominance in the State.

For generations now this has been the prevailing view.  Not since Williams himself and his cohorts Neil Stabler, Phil Hart and Frank Kelly built the modern Michigan Democratic Party in the 1950’s have our Democratic representatives paid much attention to Western Michigan or much of Michigan beyond the I-75 corridor, with disastrous consequences.  

Detroit, once a city of 1.5 million now has less than half that population.  Flint, as recent headlines concerning the state-sponsored water crisis demonstrates, is equally not only in dire straits but likewise has lost much of its population.  The votes, consequently the political power, has shifted elsewhere, primarily to Western Michigan and out of state.  Grand Rapids, the second largest city in the state, has long been Democratic but you would never know it given the level of recognition the city receives from the state’s Democratic elites or, for that matter, the national Democratic Party.  The city is only sporadically recognized by even presidential campaigns as they make their quadrennial sojourn across the nation.   John Kennedy in 1960, Robert Kennedy in 1968, Dukkakis at a rather modest forum at the Meijer center in 1988, John Kerry in 2004.  As a result, the party has never had the support necessary to field an effective organization.  Often, mostly, there isn’t even a Democratic Headquarters except in the waning months of a national campaign.  Not even in the state’s second largest city.  Trying to find the party can sometimes be a daunting task.

The problem is further complicated by the shifting demographics as today cities like Muskegon, which has been a Democratic stronghold since the 1950’s but has not seen a Democratic president or presidential candidate since John Kennedy in 1962, are entirely ignored; but places like Holland—dominated by the Dutch Reformed Church and formerly a bulwark of political conservatism—are now voting Democratic.  In fact, in 2008 rural counties in West Michigan like Oceana and Mason voted for Obama.  Has the party done anything to build on those electoral returns?  Of course not.  Myopia strikes deep.

There was hope, in the run-up to the 2008 election cycle, when the Democrats put Howard Dean in charge.  Dean insisted that the Party abandoned the blue vs. red dichotomy and become a truly national party challenging the Rescumlicans in nearly every congressional district.  This made the opposition defend its territory not only putting more congressional seats in play but tying down resources otherwise free to spend pushing Democrats against the wall in places like Michigan.  With the election of Obama, Dean was pushed out as head of the party and things reverted back to ‘normal’.   We are living with the consequences.  Not only have the Dems lost control of both houses of Congress but literally hundreds of state legislative seats allowing the scums to gerrymander the House into a solid reactionary bloc, with little hope of mounting a successful challenge.

In this context the recent returns in the Democratic Primary are illustrative.  Hillary, following the strategy long adopted by the mossbacks of the party, concentrated her efforts as usual along the I-75 corridor.   Bernie concentrated on the rest of the state, places like Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Traverse City.  In Muskegon, for instance, campaign workers came to my door, asked who I was supporting, put a Sanders yard sign in my yard, as well as that of my neighbor who was supporting Clinton.  Clinton’s campaign, here in a city that on election day will have no Republicans running for local office on the ballot, was nowhere to be seen.  Accordingly, Bernie handily won the rest of the state, including the former Democratic congressional district comprising the northern lower peninsula and the entire upper peninsula, now held by the Rescumlican Tea baggers.  

What the election demonstrates is a troubling dynamic within the contemporary Democratic Party, a party bereft of imagination not only regarding solutions to the countries myriad problems but in terms of organizing itself and, therefore, its subsequent ability to function as a political party by organizing, in turn, political opinion.  Here Bernie not only defeats the rear-guard apparatchiks representing as they do the remnants of the old DLC and all it stands for, but he does it by organizing in greater numbers a countryside long left fallow by the party regulars.  This should be a wake-up call to those in the party and progressives about the as-yet unrealized potential to fully materialize into a transformative movement.  

 

Mar 17, 2016

March 14, 2016: Salutary Task, Full Panic Mode, Experience Has Not Served


 
On the Republican side, the structure of the primary schedule, however, favored the insurgent Donald Trump who, having performed the salutary task of dispensing the last of the Bush Dynasty, ran away with the Southern primaries with his transparently racist and xenophobic agenda and his crypto-fascist campaign style; a recipe sure to appeal to the gut instincts of those who fly the stars and bars.  What the moneyed elites who are presently losing their tenuous grasp on the levers of the Rescumlican Party do not understand is that these people have been savaged by the economic policies of their party and are now in no mood to be dictated to by the policy wonks holed up at the Heritage Foundation or any of the other stink tanks heretofore directing the show.  This struggle can be openly seen in the tussle now occurring between Donald Trump and the current Speaker of the House who insists on driving budgets that savage the very people that inhabit these haunts.  Accordingly, the ‘evangelicals’, the rank and file that is, are voting for the likes of Donald Trump, much to the chagrin of their religious and Republican Party leaders. 

The Rescumlican leadership now finds itself in full panic mode as the flock have fled the pen and left the reservation.  Mitt Romney, speaking before a group at the University of Utah, excoriated Trump, calling him out on his many failures and his phoniness.  This, alas, only served to strengthen Trump as the rank and file of the Rescumlican Party, long inured to the influence of the ‘press’ quickly ciphered that Trump must be worth something to be hated in so indecent a fashion.  And so as “Faux News” rails against the upstart to no avail; the king makers, long accustomed to docility, now find themselves confronted with a full-fledged revolt for, alas, it turns out that the beer-drinking fans of NASCAR do not have the same economic agenda as Wall Street hedge fund managers and vulture capitalists.  The southern primaries were meant to stop this.  Evangelicals and Southern good-old-boy racism were meant to prevent any woolly-headed ideas cooked up by northern liberals from ever emerging on the national stage. 

But this is a different year.  The times, they say, ‘are-a-changing’.  On the political right (wrong), instead of hampering the economic populism always nascent in conservative America, such is the strength of the ‘populist’ revolt currently underway that all the old bromides—abortion, flag-waving jingoism, and appeals to ‘tinkle-down’ free-market economics, have the sound of tinkling brass—or, rather, a cruel hoax.  Instead the rank and file on the conservative end of the spectrum, retaining only the all-too-transparent racism and misogyny, have opted for a full-throated rage against the economic policies that have created this mess.

Nowhere is this seen as clearly as in the wholesale rejection by the Rescumlican rank-and-file of experience.  Why? Because experience hasn’t served them very well.  Those in power are the ones who created this mess in the first place; and, after nearly 4 decades in which the Middle Class has been left with their faces pressed against the window as the party inside went on and on, there is now rumbling in the streets.

Gone now are Governors Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Chris Christie and, most notably, John Ellis Bush leaving only The Donald, followed by an empty shirt and a messianic menace, both first-term senators.  Only John Kasich of Ohio, of those still standing, has any real experience in governance. For it is written “the Last shall be First”.

 

 

Mar 10, 2016

March 9, 2016: From the Jaws of Victory, Cries from the Rustbelt, As If For The First Time


 
“To date the Democrats have proven adept only at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”

                       ----from “The Quotations of Chairman Joe”

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, but something happened on the way to the forum.  After battling Hillary to a dead heat in the Iowa Caucus, Bernie Sanders administered a sharp blow to the ‘Once and Future Queen’ by crushing her in Vermont and New Hampshire.  But, schooled in inspired stupidity, the mossbacks running the Democratic Party erected a ‘firewall’ against any progressive insurgency by first selecting over 700 so-called, ‘super delegates’ composed of elected officials and party big-Whigs, and secondly but creating “Super-Tuesday”, the first of the great primary nights, duly front-loaded in early March so as to insure that the insurgent candidate doesn’t have enough time, should he or she do well in the early contests, to raise enough money and field an effective ground-game operation.  Moreover, this event is concentrated in the deep South, shortly on the heels of the snake pit in South Carolina, a sure fire way to thwart any would-be challenger to the status quo.  Or so it seems.

Emerging from his stunning performance in Iowa, in which the outcome was quite literally decided by the tossing of coin, and his crushing of Clinton in New Hampshire, Sanders had a tough hill to climb in the Southeast, the area of the country that although it benefited greatly from the New Deal has, because of Civil Rights, proven in the last half century increasingly hostile toward liberalism. Here is the bulwark erected by the party apparatchiks to prevent the emergence and nomination of another George McGovern and these primaries have—scheduled as they are in the primary sequence and grouped together into a loose ‘Southern Bloc’, have indeed produced the likes of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, southern political practitioners that have, on balance, proven to be material accomplices in the dismantling of the New Deal.  Carter by introducing and legitimizing the fundamentalist voting bloc, beginning the process of wholesale deregulation, increasing defense spending as a percentage of GDP, taxing unemployment benefits and, most notably calling the progressive tax code a ‘disgrace to the human race’.  Clinton, of course, repealed Glass-Steagall, continued deregulation, ratified Reagan’s destruction of the progressivity of the tax code, as well as committing the country to trade agreements that hollowed out the manufacturing base of the country, balanced budgets on the backs of the working people, began the policy of wholesale incarcerations, and signed off on the telecommunications act of 1996 which created the corporate dominance of the media we have now.  Given when the primaries are held and the order in which they held any would be insurgency from the political left, in either party, risks being snuffed at its inception.   

Accordingly, Hillary, resting her campaign upon her strengths with the African-American community, as well as what is left of the old party machinery, ran up some impressive victories in Dixie, from South Carolina through Georgia and Alabama, all the way to Louisiana.  But Bernie, of late has come back with victories in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, those areas that were the hotbed of the old prairie fire that fueled the progressive movement and the New Deal.  But the press, determined to anoint the anointed one had all but written off the Sanders insurgency.  Then came Michigan.

In a sense the press had it right.  Michigan was a must-win for Sanders, for it is difficult to see where he had to go had Clinton won, especially if she had won decisively. If he could not win in Michigan, a state savaged by the economic legacy of the first Clinton Presidency, where could he win?

Then came the cry from the Rustbelt.  Alas, this was not supposed to happen.  “The most recent poll had Clinton ahead by 27 points. The RealClearPolitics average had her winning by 21 points. Even the most optimistic poll had Sanders trailing by 13 points”. (1)  Nate Silber’s much heralded “FiveThirtyEight.com” was stunned, observing in the aftermath: “to find an upset on the same scale as what Sanders achieved in Michigan, you’d have to go back over 30 years. Those polls that put Illinois and Ohio out of Sanders’s reach look a lot less reliable today. And if Sanders wins in those states, it won’t be his viability as a candidate that is in question.” (2)

Once again, as eight years ago, large segments of the Democratic constituencies are recoiling at the prospect of a Clinton restoration.  And for good reason.  Where were the Clintons in the fight to keep those good paying jobs from leaving the country?  Where were they on welfare reform, on re-regulation, on anti-trust, on a whole host of issues.  Most of what they ‘accomplished’ was either a ratification of the Reagan reaction or ‘improvements’ upon it becoming by degrees material accomplices in the ongoing dismantlement of the New Deal.  And, like their conservative mentors presided over yet another recovery to which the Middle Class was not invited. 

Presented with yet another challenge the Clinton’s go about what they have always done, smearing their opponent.  With Obama it was dog-whistle racial innuendo, questioning his ability to be ‘commander-in-chief’ and lending initial credibility to the ‘birther’ nonsense.  Eight years later, and once again in full-panic mode, they are about smearing an opponent’s record, questioning his commitment to Civil Rights by pointing out that he represents lily-white Vermont.  Here the Clinton’s demonstrate their remarkable political dexterity.  Eight years ago when Obama had locked up the black vote, the Clinton’s were campaigning like George Wallace in order to carry West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Now, confronted with a challenge from an old white Jew they present themselves as the champion of minorities, denigrating Bernie’s involvement in the Civil Rights struggle.  It hasn’t fooled everyone, Ben Jealous for instance, the former head of the NAACP has endorsed Bernie, but the strategy worked well enough for Hillary to win big victories in the South where blacks represent a much greater percentage of the Democratic vote—especially if the turnout is low—then they represent in the general population.  The other narrative is, of course to paint him as some wild-eyed radical, a hopeless idealist, advocating some ‘pie-in-the-sky’ radical agenda when all Bernie is suggesting is that we restore the New Deal and the tax code of Dwight Eisenhower.  As I remind my Democratic colleagues, most of whom support Hillary, of course we can do it, our ancestors did it back in the day when we believed and therefore invested in ourselves.  This is ‘revolutionary’ only in the original meaning of the term, that is things have gone ‘full circle’.  Past as prelude.  We have made this journey to find ourselves at the point at which it all began, and to see it as if for the first time.
_______

(1). “Why Bernie Sanders’s Win in Michigan is Huge” The Nation. http://www.thenation.com/article/why-bernie-sanderss-win-in-michigan-is-huge/

(2). Ibid.

 

 

Mar 8, 2016

March 8, 2016: When 6 Becomes 9, Fundamental Re-alignment, Material Accessories to the Dismantlement of the New Deal


 
“The Clinton’s have been material accessories to the dismantlement of the New Deal”

                        ----From “The Quotations of Chairman Joe”

Economist and former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration posted this observation on Facebook this morning:

“America could be on the verge of a fundamental political realignment. Starting with the New Deal, the Democrats were the party of blue-collar workers while the Republicans represented the white-collar establishment. But the tables may be reversed in coming years.

To understand this possibility, consider that right now there are four political tribes in America -- each with its own nominee for President:

1. The Democratic establishment (suburban professionals, Democratic political insiders, liberal-leaning business executives, political centrists). Their candidate is Hillary Clinton.

2. The Republican anti-establishment Right (evangelicals and abortion foes, Tea Partiers, climate-change deniers, federal-government haters, and Fox News addicts). They want Ted Cruz.

3. The Republican anti-establishment isolationists and bigots (economic losers, foes of free trade, angry about immigrants, fearful of Muslims). They want Donald Trump.

4. The Democratic anti-establishment (worried most about widening inequality, concentrated wealth and power at the top, corporate control of our democracy, Wall Street’s excesses). They want Bernie Sanders.

The most prominent group without a political leader at the moment is the Republican establishment (corporate and Wall Street heads, coastal elites, mid-level executives, small-business owners, right-of-center retirees).

If Trump or Cruz becomes the Republican candidate, and Hillary gets the Democratic nomination, the Republican establishment will line up behind Hillary Clinton -- who will thereby become the candidate of the white collar American establishment (in uneasy coalition with African-Americans).

And Trump or Cruz will be the candidate of the white working class. The New Deal reversal will be complete.

What do you think?” (1)

This is precisely the analysis being put forward in this column, for the political center has given way and a new governing coalition will emerge from this election cycle.  How permanent it will be will depend upon who wins the election and what the next president does in office to cement the emergent coalition in power.  We had thought that this had happened after the 2008 cycle only to see that because the structural issues concerning the economy had not been addressed and the plight of the Middle Class had not been alleviated that the coalition that has elected Obama for two terms is unravelling.  The reasons for this have been previously delineated in these columns and will be subjects of continuing commentary but for our purposes here it is enough to say that, in the words of Bob Dylan, ‘the wheel’s still in spin’. 

Professor Reich is right in that what now looms if the Republicans nominate Trump or Cruz and the Democrats nominate Hillary is that we will have an effective swap of political positions as the ‘liberals’ abandon all pretense of ‘progressivism’ and abdicate their historic role as the voice of the ‘people’. The ‘populist’ revolt will by default fall into the hands of the political wrong—the right wing crypto fascists.  And therein lies the tragedy. 

There are reasons why the good professor, a friend of Hillary’s since she was 19 years old, has now openly endorsed the candidacy of Bernie Sanders for President.  He understands what is as stake here: not only a battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party but a struggle, not unlike that which our ancestors faced, to lead the populist revolt in a progressive direction and in so doing save the underpinning of the middle class and the foundations of the republic itself. 

For the Clintons it will, however, represent a singular victory for Hillary especially.  Ever since her days as a ‘Goldwater girl’ in which she labored assiduously on behalf of the architect of dismantling the New Deal, Hillary and her husband Bill have labored mightily to transform the Democratic Party into ‘Bush-Lite’, if not the party of Wall Street.

Let there be no mistake about it. The Clintons have been material accessories to the dismantling of the New Deal, from the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the replacement of AFDC (passed by FDR in 1933) savaging in turn the social safety net, the failure to enforce anti-trust laws, the encouragement of mergers and acquisitions—especially in finance and energy, the wholesale incarceration and sponsorship of privatization, the awful trade agreements that have hollowed out our industrial base and destroyed our unions…ad nauseum.   Her nomination in the teeth of a full-fledged populist revolt that now spans the entire political spectrum would be a testament to the complete transformation of the Democratic Party from the party of FDR, JFK, and LBJ to the party of William McKinley, Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover. 

Welcome to the 21st Century where 6 is 9.

-------

(1)   Robert Reich Facebook post of March 8, 2016.

 

Feb 28, 2016

February 27, 2016: The Nature of Populism, Ideological Ambivalence, A Question of Leadership


“Anti-establishment populism has been the most important force in our politics for the last twenty years. It is neither liberal nor conservative. Politicians on both sides have used it effectively.  American populism has three important characteristics.  It is ideologically ambivalent. And it has displaced progressivism as the dominant motif of American Politics.  Elites tend to be rich and well-educated, hence, economically conservative and culturally sophisticated. Populism is anti-elitist and therefore just the reverse—left wing on economic issues and right-wing on social and cultural issues.”
                        --Political analyst William Schneider, 1986 (1)

Writing nearly a quarter century ago that America was nearing the ‘boiling point’, conservative political strategist Kevin Phillips, author of Richard Nixon’s 1968 ‘Southern Strategy’, documented the agony of America’s middle class as it writhed in pain under the impact of Reaganomics.  Little could he have imagined that the Middle Class would continue to endure the pressure cooker for more than another two decades.   Phillips, in his initial work “The Politics of Rich and Poor” and his sequel to “Boiling Point”, “Arrogant Capital”, documents not only the pressures and decline of the contemporary middle class in the United States, but puts the present conundrum in the context of previous ‘populist’ revolts that have served to correct the abuses of wealth in this country.  His reference here to the observation of contemporary political analyst William Schneider that American populism is a schizophrenic affair in that it is economically liberal and socially conservative is both illuminating and not new.

Historian Richard Hofstadter, writing more than a quarter century before Schneider and Phillips in his work “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” (2) had many of the same observations regarding previous eras of political reform.  The historical record reveals that all ‘populist’ movements are a mix of liberalism and conservatism, specifically in the United States the Greenback and Progressive movements of the late 19th and early 20th century have always been a complex mix of liberal and conservative, intellectual and anti-intellectual elements struggling for dominance in an effort to give political definition and produce political remedy to the challenges of their times. Therefore, it was the ‘prairie fire’ coming out of the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, as well as from the Deep South, that drove the revolts of the late 19th century organized around the Grange and the Greenback movements and thrice nominating the scourge of Wall Street, Democrat William Jennings Bryan for President of the United States.

And it was the same impetus from the same regions added to the industrial unrest in the Mid-West that fueled the revolts producing the great Progressive upheaval of the early decades of the last century and thereafter the New Deal.  But make no mistake about it, the same political forces that gave us the 8-hour work day, ended child labor, won for women the right to vote, re-instituted a federal income tax and eventually produced a ‘progressive’ graduated income tax, enforce anti-trust and broke up the cartels, instituted referendum, recall, and the direct election of the U.S. Senate, was the same movement that created and enforce Jim Crow in the South, restricted immigration, resisted attempts to end lynching’s.  Even as late as the 1930’s to the 1960’s, efforts to move a ‘progressive’ agenda depended on working with or getting around the mossbacks of conservatism, congressional committee chairmen almost all of them from Southern States.  Just as FDR had to make his deals with the likes of Arkansas Senator Joseph Robinson who ,as Senate Majority Leader, he would have to rely upon in order to herd much needed New Deal Legislation through the Senate , so LBJ would have to wheedle his way past the staunch opposition from the likes of Senate Judiciary Committee chairman James Eastland of Mississippi, Eastland’s fellow Mississippi Senator John Stennis, Georgia Senators Richard Russell and Herman Tallmadge, as well as Strom Thurmond and a host of others that held powerful committee and sub-committee chairmanships and all signers of the ‘southern manifesto’ hell-bent on stopping the civil rights initiative of the Johnson administration in its tracks.

Socially conservative but economically liberal, these representatives of the American ‘heartland’, would regularly enough line up to support federal programs like the TVA but would stand in stalwart opposition to any attempt to extend their progressive agenda to minorities.  Indeed, it was Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to do that very thing—that is extend the benefits of the New Deal to those that were left behind—that brought about the unravelling of the New Deal Coalition. The ‘populist’ movement broke apart into its constituent elements with ‘populist’ economic liberals joining fellow social liberals and ‘populist’ social conservatives aligning themselves with emerging religiously based ‘Moral Majority’ joining forces with the main-line eastern moneyed interests and in the process forming a new governing coalition that would, with some slight interruptions, dominate American politics for the next half-century.

Ideologically ambivalent, profoundly anti-establishment, anti-elitist and—according to historian Hofstadter—more than occasionally deeply paranoid Populism has today emerged as a full-blown political upheaval. No longer simply “ideologically ambivalent” but spanning the entire political spectrum from the ‘political revolution’ offered by the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders on the American left, to the deeply paranoid, anti-intellectual, the populist revolt now underway in the United States is now systematically about the business of rejecting the ‘political elite’ in an effort to free itself from the yoke of what the middle classes view as a governing ‘class’ that in Reagan’s haunting words are ‘the problem’. 

It is worth noting here that of the candidates offering themselves for consideration in the present election nearly all with any discernable experience in governing have been summarily jettisoned by the electorate.  Gone is Rick Perry of Texas, the nation’s longest serving governor and the first to make his exit, followed by the Governors of Wisconsin and New Jersey, Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and one John Ellis (JEB) Bush, leaving now the Real Estate Tycoon with the bad hair, the former Detroit neurosurgeon, the neophyte Senator from Florida and one Ted Cruz of Texas who, Senator Graham has informed us, if he were to be shot and killed on the Senate floor his assailant, were he to be tried by Cruz’s fellow Senators, would be acquitted and set free.

We have been here before.  A century and more ago our ancestors likewise rose in revolt against what Phillips now refers to as arrogant capital.  Rising in revolt against the excesses of the Gilded Age our ancestors managed to harness the pain, the anxieties, and the anger of those being exploited by the dominant economic elites by taking control of the language, controlling the debate, and marshalling the political energy by forging a truly Progressive movement.  As Gore Vidal once observed about Roosevelt and the New Deal, “it could easily have gone the other way”, meaning that the movement could have degenerated into a crypto fascist affair.  The outcome, as the experiences of twentieth century Europe attest, is neither reliably progressive nor a foregone conclusion.

This, it seems to me is what lies at the heart of this election.  The question isn’t simply a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.  It isn’t simply a question of progressives wresting control of the party from the clutches of the mossbacks in the form of the remnants of Bill Clinton’s old DLC cabal; it is a struggle for control of the larger populist movement now transcendent across the political spectrum.
Bernie Sanders is quite right. Donald Trump’s supporters are Bernie’s natural constituency inasmuch as Bernie is addressing the economic issues that so belabor the working classes—those remnants of the ‘Reagan-Democrats” cum ‘Teabaggers’ whose protest is largely over economic rather than social issues and for whom the Republican alliance with big business and Wall Street are anathema.  These people have no interest in dismantling the New Deal, they have no interest in savaging the safety net, or in cutting education, road building or any of the rest of the agenda of groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth.  And they are now exercising enough power to send the pre-emptive ‘establishment’ favorites—the Scott’s, the Bushes, the Christies—packing. 

The question before us in this election is who is going to lead this revolt?  Who is going to give definition to the movement? Will it be the Republicans or the Democrats?  Will it be the Liberals or once again the conservatives?  The last time such a revolt occurred nearly half-century ago in 1968 it was the conservatives that gave definition—Nixon’s Southern strategy and his “Silent Majority”.  Will they once again steal the floor and become the voice of the discontent?

It is worth repeating here.  When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1968, many of his followers—especially in the old populist regions of the country (the South and plains) moved their support to George Wallace.  On its face one wouldn’t link these two political figures in American politics.  But Wallace, stripped of his avowedly racist overtones, was like his precursor Huey Long a populist.  Stridently anti-elite railing against ‘brief-case toting beaurocrats and ‘pointy-headed intellectuals’ Wallace was, as was Long who waged war against the dominance of Standard Oil and other major interests in Louisiana politics, nevertheless a stalwart defender of the economic interests of the middle classes.

The present revolt of the Middle Classes, now spanning the entire political spectrum, is pregnant with possibility and fraught with danger.  As the ground beneath us begins to tremble and the earth begins to move beneath our very feet the question before us is “where will the new political center fall?” and “what will be the nature of the coalition that emerges that will govern this country for the foreseeable future?” These questions are not left to chance.  These questions are solved by political organization and advocacy, translating themselves into political agendas and votes; about which I have two observations:

First, the political ‘left’ or what passes for the political left in this country is late to the table.  Groups like the ‘Freedom Foundation”, Billionaires like the Koch Brothers and others, and conservative stink-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth, have been working for years on developing agendas and building political organizations.  They, heretofore, have determined the language and, therefore, the terms of the debate.  Liberals have been slow to recognize this resulting in the wholesale losses of seats in state legislatures, governorship's, and seats in the U.S. congress.  A great deal of ground must be made up in a real hurry if we are to marshal the political energy engendered by the revolt into constructive public policy.

Secondly, for the above reasons it will be a complete disaster if the Democrats were to nominate Hillary Clinton for president of the United States.  Hillary, the ultimate ‘insider’, Wall Street’s and the Walton Family’s favorite Democrat, is hardly in a position to tap the current rage against the political elite’s that have created this economic and national catastrophe.  Indeed, her continual insistence that she is the one with ‘experience’ while it may win her the nomination, is as ham-handed and tone-deaf as JEB Bush insisting that the remedy for our current angst is for people to ‘work harder’.  For it should have long since been obvious that the public’s rejection of the most experience candidates on the Republican side as well as the remarkable success of the insurgency of outsider Bernie Sanders that the public does not and will not respect the dictates of the ‘elites’.  And why should they?  What did all that experience produce?  Longer hours, less pay, more money being funneled to the investor class. 

The question, as previously formulated is who is going to lead this revolt?  If the Dems nominate Clinton, the beneficiary is Trump and the conservative movement just as the nomination of Humphrey in 1968 benefited first Wallace and then Nixon.  The political center, as in 1968, shifts to the wrong.  If the Dems nominate Sanders, then liberals have a real chance at claiming the votes not only of large numbers of independents but also of that part of the Republican base that has no interest in social conservatism at the price of sacrificing their own economic interests
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This much is certain: The political center has given way; it no longer holds. No one is interested in Obama’s third term or, given that Obama surrounded himself with the likes of Geithner, Summers and a host of Wall Street contributors and advisers from Bill Clinton’s administration, Clinton’s fifth term.  It’s so passé, so late 20th century.    
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(1). See Phillips, Kevin P. “The Boiling Point”. Random House, New York 1993 page 58
(2) Hofstadter, Richard. “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”  Alfred A. Knopf, New York

                        1970 434 pages.

Feb 27, 2016

February 26, 2016: The Monk of Clairvaux, Depth of Decline, Know Not How to Govern


Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) (1) in a letter to his disciple Eugenius had this to say about the vices and Tumults of Rome:

“Who is ignorant”, says the monk of Clairvaux, “of the vanity and the arrogance of the Romans? A nation nursed in sedition, cruel, untractable, and scorning to obey, unless they are too feeble to resist.  When they promise to serve, they aspire to reign; if they swear allegiance, they watch the opportunity of revolt; yet they vent their discontent in loud clamors, if your doors or your counsels are shut against them.  Dexterous in mischief, they have never learned the science of doing good.  Odious to earth and heaven, impious to God, seditious among themselves, jealous of their neighbours, inhuman to strangers, they love no one, by no one are they loved; and while they wish to inspire fear, they live in base and continual apprehension.  They will not submit; they know not how to govern; faithless to their superiors, intolerable to their equals, ungrateful to their benefactors, and alike impudent in their demands and their refusals.  Lofty in promise, poor in execution: adulation and calumny, perfidy and treason, are familiar arts of their policy.” (2)

This account of the sorry state into which the once proud Romans had degenerated by the 12th century could easily describe contemporary America and the malaise currently gripping the American psyche.  Nothing, better describes attitudes and behaviors of the contemporary United States currently in the grip of the narcissistic Boomers, the ‘Generation of Swine”; and nowhere is this malignancy more manifest than in the mischief presently perpetrated by the knuckle-dragging conservative movement which releasing itself from the bonds of reason has proceeded to make a mockery of not only public policy but the very legitimacy of governance itself.  History, it appears, has run its course on the American Empire as the cancer that is the American Conservative movement works its way through the body politic.

Across this land one hears a constant chorus of ‘it can’t be done’.  We can’t afford health insurance; we can’t afford to invest in infrastructure; we can’t afford to invest in our people and our labor force; we can’t afford the new technologies necessary to save ourselves, and perhaps the planet, from the devastating demands being imposed upon mother nature by modern civilization. This has become the Mantra of the Swine.

This isn’t a recent development.  It began precisely at that junction when the “Boomers” came, politically speaking, ‘of age’.  Just as the ‘Can-Do’ attitudes of our fathers put a man on the moon the “Boomers”, having chased a President from office and about to vote for the first time, added to their critique of war and peace the questioning of our investments in the space program.  The argument, so it went, was that we couldn’t afford the program.  And so Nixon, always with his ear to the ground, cut the funding for NASA eliminating at least two more moon missions and relegating the space program for decades to the continual circling of the earth in low space orbit.  The era of “Can’t-Do” had arrived.

And so began the not-so-slow downward spiral as one program after another suffered budget cuts and America began a serial disinvestment in its future and in itself.  The “Boomers”, embracing a conservative and libertarian creed, have by degrees hollowed out not only the industrial economy of a once great nation but it’s very soul; to the very point where we now “know not how to govern” and, indeed question the very legitimacy of governance itself.   
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(2). Gibbon, Edward “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”.  Methuen & Co

            London 1914. Volume VII, page 228