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.