Sunday, November 22, 2015

Charity Starts at Empathy

Once again, "compassionate conservatism" remains the reigning champion of oxymorons.

Regarding the Syrian refugees, I am getting really tired of hearing "We should take care of our own people first" from those who are opposed to doing that too. It is particularly ridiculous from the religious right.

Let me address these ubiquitous hypocrites directly:

"Take care of our own"? Didn't you oppose "Obamacare" and the expansion of Medicaid? Didn't you call Social security "theft"? I guess when you say "Charity starts at home," you mean literally in your own home. Congratulations, conservative Christians! You fail remedial Bible study. Again. Take a hint: You cannot embrace Ayn Rand and Christianity simultaneously.

But don't take it from me: That's what she said.

Of course, you also fail basic patriotism at the same time. Do you need a visual aid? Should I post a photo of the Statue of Liberty and the caption "Your argument is invalid"? America's identity as a nation of immigrants should be sufficient to establish how utterly unpatriotic the conservative response is. How much must I dumb it down? Attention, Ben Carson: It's not brain surgery.

But why should that surprise anyone? Everything about the conservative temperament and enterprise is inherently unpatriotic. Conservative coldness is but one facet of this self-evident fact. Examples abound. But this situation is a perfect storm of interrelated factors that illustrate how conservatism is unpatriotic in every imaginable fashion. This goes beyond hypocrisy or irony.

Let's begin with some definitions. Patriotism is not nationalism even though people routinely confuse the two. Nationalism is loyalty to some ethnicity or piece of turf. Patriotism is loyalty to liberty, equality, and democracy. And, of course, conservatives loathe those three ideals. Patriotism is not hostility to people from other places. As I pointed out in my book, the American and French revolutions were by definition internal conflicts rather than external ones. They were also revolts against traditional established orders and therefore not something that conservatives in either country can comfortably look at too closely (so, of course, they don't). Patriot rebels on both sides of the Atlantic cheered-on each others' revolutions which were, at least initially, grounded in secular Enlightenment ideals which conservatives also loathe. To use two Cold War phrases, patriots exported revolution hoping for a crown-toppling domino effect throughout Europe. Many of the founders also favored greater economic equality, but I have already covered that a few times before. They were at heart internationalists - citizens of the world like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine - who championed universal human rights and opposed oppression everywhere.

Some were more radical than others, but even the British Viscount of Bolingbroke embraced what he called "a doctrine of universal libertarian benevolence" that was "universalist rather than specific to the English." Although it eventually decayed into nationalism, his patriotism was originally "actuated by the noble Principles of universal and unconfin’d [sic] Benevolence," conducive to "the Peace and Prosperity of Mankind."(1) He died in 1750 - well before the crisis with the colonies came to a head - but before then, he wrote a lovely fantasy in which the king declared Britain a republic and abdicated.(2) In short, compassion drove a lot of political thought during the Enlightenment. True patriotism is universal, humanist, and humanitarian. As I wrote in my book:
Thus, conservative callousness is not just unconscionable but un-patriotic because actual patriotism is essentially empathy. This generous, humanist internationalism was best summed up by Thomas Paine when he wrote in The Rights of Man, “[M]y country is the world, and my religion to do good.”
Of course, conservatism runs counter to all that. Take democracy. Pat Buchanan bemoans “the worship of democracy as a form of governance.” “Like all idolatries, democratism [sic.] substitutes a false god for the real, a love of process for a love of country.” Of course, you cannot honor the Constitution if you scorn process. Accordingly, our country's first Chief Justice said, “We, sir, idolize democracy.” There is that idolatry already. Ultra-nationalists like Pat Buchanan are not patriots because they cannot be patriots.

And Pat Buchanan is no exception - not anymore. He was the first to suggest building a wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. At the time, it was cited as evidence of his extremism. Today, much of the GOP field endorses it. Extremism has been mainstreamed. The point is that all these political traits are interrelated: the racism, the nationalism, the scorn for democracy, etc.

As I wrote in chapter 9, "Liberty, Equality, and Empathy," patriotism is both animated and sustained by compassion and participation. Of course, I am not the first to point that out. In The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Stephanie Coontz showed how small-r republican virtues were built on a sense of collective responsibility for society and others - but not in the prudish way that today's conservatives presume:
In the Jeffersonian tradition, public engagement was considered the primary badge of personal character; honor and virtue were political words, not sexual ones. They designated an individual’s “civic altruism,” especially a man’s willingness to take on political responsibilities. To describe someone as a “private” person was unflattering; a preoccupation with private morality and happiness, no matter how upright, had antisocial connotations.(3)
Our founding fathers were pretty hardcore about civic altruism. For example, Dr. Benjamin Rush said, “Every man in a republic is public property” (imagine Glenn Beck's reaction to that!) and John Adams had similarly opined that a republic required “a positive Passion for the public good” that should be “Superior to all private Passions.”(4) (emphasis original) This was no ethos of selfish individualism, nor one that was focused on the family, so both wings of the Republican Party are fundamentally at odds with the culture of a true republic. The "me and mine" mindset does not fit. It is simply anti-civic.

But, again, this should not surprise anyone. The bunker mentality and paranoid, selfish fallout shelter ethics of the Tea Party is incompatible with the very concept of a republic. As Thomas Paine explained in The Rights of Man, a republic is all about the “object for which government ought to be instituted, and on which it is to be employed, res-publica, the public affairs, or the public good; or, literally translated, the public thing.”(5) (italics original) So, Republicans scorn the origin of their party’s name!

Putting self and family before others is a natural reaction but it is also myopic and potentially destructive. Therefore, it should be kept in check and resisted. That is part and parcel of the civic virtues that a republic requires to function. Ironically, Republicans do the opposite painting selfishness and insularity as virtues because they are in the thrall of Ayn Rand and family-fetishizing theocrats. But the phrase "natural reaction" is just another way of saying doing the easy thing - and practicing virtue is rarely easy. Conservatives love to lecture others on self-restraint, but their selfish id is anything but restrained. As I wrote before, half their anti-"nanny state" rhetoric is hostility to social programs, but the other half is adolescent resentment towards the chores of citizenship or being told "be nice to your sister."

It has been repeatedly pointed out that the greatest terrorist threat America faces is domestic: You are far more likely to get killed by a "patriot" militiaman than a jihadist. But what applies to terrorism applies to assimilation. Our country cannot afford to home any more conservatives. They threaten our secular society and do not understand our way of life. I am not being flip. I mean this quite literally.  Roughly half the American electorate is hostile to America's operating system, so we should not be surprised that their strategy is always sabotage. As Thomas Frank wrote in The Wrecking Crew, sabotage is both the ends and the means. He meant against America's government, whereas I mean against America's identity. But policy and culture support one another: They are two sides of the same coin.

It is high time we recognized it

_______________

(1) Christine Gerrard, The Patriot Opposition to Walpole: Politics, Poetry and National Myth 1725-1742 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 7.

(2) David Armitage, “A Patriot for Whom? The Afterlives of Bolingbroke’s Patriot King,” Journal of British Studies 36, no. 4 (Oct., 1997): 397-418. 

(3) Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 99.

(4) Ibid. 96-97.

(5) Thomas Paine, The Life and Major Writings of Thomas Paine: Includes Common Sense, The American Crisis, Rights of Man, The Age of Reason and Agrarian Justice, ed. Phillip Sheldon Foner (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993, 1974) 369.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Narrative Über Alles

I know this sounds both hyperbolic and unoriginal, but conservatives really do live in an alternative version of reality where inconvenient facts have no impact on the story line and contradictions do not bother them.

In this particular instance, they are claiming that France - which they previously described as a country of "surrender monkeys" - is taking the lead in punishing ISIS after this weekend's terrorist attacks in Paris. French fighter jets made four air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria. Of course, conservatives also claim that President Obama (who they alternately describe as a blood-thirsty tyrant and a spineless mom jean-wearing appeaser) has been too timid to get involved and therefore done nothing. Whereas, in fact, we have made 6,353 airstrikes over the last fifteen months - about four times all other coalition air strikes combined. But, once again, conservatives have their own vacuum-packed narrative, which I must admit they have been pretty consistent with across time, embarrassing hiccups notwithstanding:


Opposing Obama almost seems to be their sole political polestar. As I wrote about in my first blog post, they have been in favor of U.S. military intervention in Syria's civil war fairly consistently - but they constantly flip-flopped on which side to support. Initially, they demanded that Obama topple Assad by supporting the rebels. Never mind the Al-Qaeda elements among them. Seeing bad guys on both sides, Obama had hoped to stay out. Then Assad used chemical weapons, which is a big no-no in international law, and Obama said we need to consider air strikes. Suddenly, conservative hawks became doves. They stopped calling Obama a wimp and resumed calling him a dictator. And when he diplomatically brokered a moratorium on the use of chemical weapons in the conflict, conservatives resumed calling him a wimp. But now that ISIS is making gains, they support Russia's efforts to bolster Assad. As George Orwell wrote in 1984, "We've always been at war with Eastasia." Otherwise, the situation has not changed much except that we are there. But conservatives have been consistent in two other things. They think that Muslims are bad and that we should bomb some brown people over there. Whoever they are.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Fool Me Once

Speaking of the helix of evil and stupid, ignorant bigots are playing right into the hands of terrorists again.

Today, I read a great article in the Washington Post headlined, "The Islamic State wants you to hate refugees." This is not a working theory about their motives: It is their explicitly expressed aim. After the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last January, ISIS said their aim was to make Muslims unwelcome in the West so they would be forced to return to the Middle East. They cannot stand the fact that many modern, moderate Muslims prefer to live in the secular West rather than in fundamentalist theocracies.

Alas, conservatives have been all too happy to oblige. Prior to this Friday's wave of terror strikes in Paris, they insisted that the U.S. should only accept Christian refugees from war-torn Syria, where ISIS is trying to establish their so-called caliphate. After the attacks, a growing number of Republican governors claimed that they would refuse to accept Muslim refugees in their states. Never mind that they have no authority to do so: Immigration is a federal issue and always has been, so they cannot possibly keep their intolerant promises. But that has not yet stopped or slowed their bandwagon of bigotry.

Fortunately, President Obama has called out this rhetoric as fundamentally un-American:
When I hear folks say that, well, maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims; when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefitted from protection when they were fleeing political persecution—that’s shameful. That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.
Conservatives' intolerance is obvious. I want to focus on their stupidity. As I said above, the terrorists are playing them like a fiddle as they had done before. The only difference is this time the fiddler is a ISIS instead of Al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden's avowed goal was to provoke holy war between Muslims and the West. The attacks of 9-11 were intended to spark that conflagration and they succeed in getting the U.S. to invade two Muslim countries. The second one was a bonus for bin Laden. And then, as now, the motive was no secret. If conservatives need a Nazi analogy to understand anything anymore, perhaps they should think of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. In each instance, the villains announced their intentions in advance.

There is an inaccurate but relevant Bushism that ironically sums up conservative impulses in such instances. Let me refresh your memory with a little audio, if you have already forgotten.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

I Heart Denmark Somewhat

I would like to belatedly weigh-in on the Democratic debate before last.

During the debate, moderator Anderson Cooper asked Senator Bernie Sanders if he thought America would ever elect a self-identified socialist as president. Sanders defined and defended democratic socialism adding, "I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people." Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed that we should reign-in capitalism's excesses, but balked at celebrating these Scandinavian nations as a model. "We are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America."

In my self-appointed role of patriotism ombudsman, I have to correct Clinton.

One of the things that makes our nation great is that we adopt people from all over the world and they become a part of us. Part and parcel of that is we also adopt ideas from all over and make them our own. Clinton's implication was that the Scandinavian model is inherently un-American. But as
Robert Reich argued in the documentary Inequality for All, we can look to our past to find a successful strategy for fighting economic inequality - namely FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society. The difference is Scandinavia kept doing what we stopped doing.

As I wrote in my book, these ideas have precedents dating back to our founding fathers. Thomas Paine devised a social security program. Benjamin Franklin advocated a form of affirmative action for freed slaves as well as capping wealth. Thomas Jefferson recommended progressive taxation to resist aristocracy and had no problem with government intervening in the market. That is why I call some of these founders "proto-socialists" - because their ideas influenced later socialist thought. As I wrote, "It seems that the seed of 'creeping socialism' was in our soil from the very start. In fact, it was actually a native plant that we introduced to Europe, much like the potato or the tomato." Accordingly, John Adams complained, "Too many Frenchmen, after the example of too many Americans, pant for equality of persons and property."(1)

The upshot of this debate exchange is renewed interest in a book titled The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia. The author,
Michael Booth (who I will try to avoid calling Michael Bluth), is a Brit who has lived in Scandinavia for over a decade. (I am now trying to imagine a "Little Britain" in Copenhagen.) The Nordic countries have been sweeping the World Happiness Report rankings in recent years, and he wanted to show that they have their problems too. Of course, anyone who has tried to assemble IKEA furniture already knows this. Levity aside, there is racism, homophobia, and other problems there too. A gay friend of mine was attacked while traveling in Norway. People's reactions were both eye-opening and saddening.

Needless to say, conservatives have pounced on Booth's book and oversimplified the thesis. For example, i
n this video, the Wall Street Journal interviewer tries to suggest Scandinavia's generous social programs poison entrepreneurship, but Booth shoots that down by saying it is actually a great place to start a business and rattles off a list of Scandinavian brands that are familiar household names in the States.

Booth's point is that Scandinavia is not perfect and certainly not deliriously happy. It is odd to say countries with so much Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) are the "happiest in the world." But Bernie Sanders is not talking about copying their climate, which of course we cannot. Booth identifies some economic problems. For example, he argues that the flip side of working shorter hours is lower productivity. But many of his book's criticisms are cultural and have nothing to do with socialism. People are people, and you are going to have assholes under even the most enlightened and generous governments.

Booth has always found things to praise about Scandinavia, which may explain why he chooses to live there. (Well, that and his wife is Danish, but he admits it is quite comfortable there.)(2) Note the end of this interview in The Washington Post's Wonk Blog:

INTERVIEWER: You emphasize, in the end, that there is a lot that we can learn from the Nordic countries. What is one of the best lessons?

BOOTH: At least aim for economic and gender equality. Everyone benefits, so it’s worth a shot, no?


I think Bernie Sanders is already on board with that program.

__________

(1) John Adams, Works of John Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1850-56) 9:564. Adams has some specific Americans in mind. 


(2) This is not to suggest that Michael Booth cannot be a little obnoxious sometimes - something he cheerfully admits. He clarifies that his book is a bit more nuanced than his original piece for the Guardian adding, "Some mistook this for a UK v Scandinavia piece. Not at all. I live in Denmark and, for the moment, I would not want to live anywhere else. As long, that is, as they let me stay."

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Okay, I cannot let go of that botched engraving in Ben Carson's home that I had mentioned in my previous post. So many back story possibilities fan out. As I asked before, if the errors are the engraver's, why did Carson not call the contractor when he noticed? He has noticed it, right?

Well, now my mind is really reeling. Did Carson misspell Proverbs and the engraver not catch or correct him? Or did they fight over it? Does Carson insist that is the correct spelling for some arcane 7th Day Adventist reason? That may also explain capitalizing everything except the word "poverbs." Or is there an online monument generator like Meme Maker where some child in China chisels out whatever the customer types in? That might also explain omitting the space after the comma.

This is almost like Akira Kurosawa's Rashômon at this point.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Helix of Evil & Stupid

The existence of evil is not exclusively a theological question. The word “evil” is not limited to metaphysics or the vivid, viscous, and visceral imaginings of H.P. Lovecraft. It can simply mean bad or foul. For example, in an issue of “Sam and Max, Freelance Police,” there is a sign in a convenience store that reads, "Drink cheap, evil-smelling beer every day of your life."

Yes, this is going to be yet another geeky post with lots of gratuitous comic book references.

Historically, the word "evil" has also meant some undesirable result or harm. For example, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegate Elbridge Gerry said, “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.” On the other end of the patriot spectrum, Thomas Paine wrote of humanity's loss of original equality, “The thing, therefore, now to be done is to remedy the evils and preserve the benefits" of becoming civilized. Although the two founders had the opposite politics, both their definitions of “evil” were secular and societal. They saw themselves as troubleshooting flawed systems.

But I want to talk about about evil’s chronic association with stupidity. It is a classic comic book trope that also appears in related media. Generally speaking, minions and henchmen are not particularly bright. A Blackadder-like figure is not apt to attract too many sharp followers. It is, after all, an abusive or exploitive relationship that most intelligent people would quickly spot and avoid. We also see this dynamic in “Pinky and the Brain.” It is an irritating inevitability that Ayn Rand had learned the hard way. Later in life, the patron saint of sociopaths reflected, “[M]y fans disappointed and depressed me more than my enemies.”(1) Cult leaders and tyrants are notoriously lonely. Anyone in their D&D alignment who shares their level of intellect is most likely a deadly competitor. Thus they typically spend their years in stygian, Nixonian loneliness with few friendly peers. I wonder how many dark, cold nights Glenn Beck, Jonah Goldberg, or Grover Norquist have spent groping for resolve with a glass of scotch in one hand and a Glock in the other.

Just kidding! I don’t actually think either is that smart or honorable.

On the flip side, dim leaders invariably have evil advisors. Every George W. Bush has his Dick Cheneys and Karl Roves. Ronald Reagan likewise drew sociopaths like a Lt. Col. Oliver North and, well, many of those who later staffed both Bush administrations. Interestingly, a number of them were Nixon people too.

The classic dynamic by which useful idiots and manipulators interact is so obvious that there is no point in spelling it out. The familiar labels for each type of person that I have just used does that already. What most interests me is another dynamic – the one by which the evil genius becomes stupid.

Most manipulators have already stepped on that slippery slope. It is said that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." That is because those who have it are often not smart enough to appreciate how little it is. They only know that they are smarter than most and have been tormented for it. Most geeks experience this. But, ironically, you do not start to get really smart until you get over yourself. Otherwise, you are largely resting on your laurels. Hubris breeds stupidity: Witness Wile E. Coyote. And obviously nursing your bitterness is a pathetic dead-end distraction. At some point, you must get over yourself and decide to be Spiderman rather than Doc Oc or the Mole Man. Alas, few “Sad Puppies,” Men’s Rights Activists, neoreactionaries, or any member of the Red Pill Right will ever get this. Their politics are almost entirely grounded in a denied sense of entitlement and perhaps a tad bit of self-inflicted frustration. They invoke the Law of Nature to rubber stamp their claim and get angry and confused when Nature fails to perform as they advertise, so they blame society instead of their theory (which isn't terribly scientific).

Of course, there are other slightly different, related ways to frame this dynamic; but they are not mutually-exclusive. Indeed, they inform one another even further. For example, there is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which notes that the ignorant are often boastful and over-confident about their knowledge and ability while the smart are often cautious and under-confident. Another is that people are creatures of habit. If you are contemptuous of others' intelligence, your default will be to underestimate people. And as Abraham Lincoln put it, "You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of thee time." Even if you are an especially gifted grifter and initially cautious, eventually too much effortless success will make you sloppy. Nobody can always be at the top of their game and ever alert. Eventually everyone flies on autopilot. Finally, if you are an expert in one area, it is tempting to overestimate your competence in other unrelated areas. As I wrote in my book, "Libertarian intelligence is typically so narrowly focused that they frequently win at tech and business but fail at life and citizenship."

The brings us to the present field of Republican presidential candidates. Many are successful egoists.

Former front runner Donald Trump pretty much sums up the bunch. He is a billionaire celebrity who has been infamous since the 1980s. But every time he opens his mouth something moronic emerges. I just typed "stupidest things ..." into Google and "stupidest things trump has said" was the second top suggestion after "stupidest things ever said." I did not even have to finish typing.

Recently, former neurosurgeon Ben Carson unhorsed Trump in both the GOP primary polls and in making immensely embarrassing statements. He has made so many that parodist Andy Borowitz quipped that Carson was destroying the stereotype that brain surgeons are smart. The most humorous claim was that the pyramids were built to store grain. If true, it would make them the most inefficient public works project in history since, as most people already know, their interiors are mostly solid stone.

Carson also duplicates Trump's galloping egoism: His home is a shrine to both himself and God (complete with misspelled engravings). It is filled with the type of white and gold-leafed things you would expect to find in a televangelist's mansion.

Also like Trump, Carson has never held elected office. That is not so much as a problem as the way he defended his lack of experience. In a Facebook post, he incorrectly claimed that none of the Declaration of Independence's signatories had ever held elected office. He later edited the statement to add the word "federal" which changed it from a false statement into a merely pointless one.

This is of course a petty footnote in comparison to his entire phony biography unraveling under scrutiny: He did not face a robber at Popeye's. He did not have a violent, troubled youth. He was not offered a scholarship at West Point, etc. There is a new revelation of fabrication every day.

And this is to say nothing of his pattern of incurring malpractice suits. I bet I can guess his position on tort reform. Perhaps this is related to the neurosurgeon's "close enough" approach to spelling. In fairness, that embarrassment was probably the engraver's error. But at some point, you must notice it and call the contractor back to fix it. Either Carson hasn't noticed it yet or surgical precision is not his forte. Moreover, that missing space after the comma is irritating the shit out of me. I cannot ignore it after noticing it. Seriously, look at it again! You had ONE job! How does seeing that everyday not drive him nuts?

Oh, wait. I think I just answered my own question.

I do not mean to pick on Ben Carson too much. I wrote more about Carson than Trump because Carson is now the GOP front runner and these incidents are more recent. And note that most of these incidents liken Carson to Trump. Both men are hucksters. Again, I am generalizing about the GOP field, and on that note the other party primary candidates are not much different. Ted Cruz is also arrogant, egoistic, and prone to saying outrageous and stupid things - Google him and you will come up with similar lists. Rand Paul is also spouts loopy conspiracy theories on a regular basis. And if that is your idea of entertainment, he does not disappoint. Google him too. Like Carson, Paul is a surgeon whose knowledge of medicine does not necessarily translate over to government or, for that matter, medicine. And both have compared same sex marriage to bestiality. No, it's not just Rick Santorum:  Rand Paul and Ben Carson say that too.(2) And I haven't even gotten to Mike Huckabee and the others.

None of these antics are likely to alienate the party base. On the contrary, they are how candidates court the base. Most of these candidates have built their entire political careers by chasing controversy. If controversy were a person, it would have restraining orders against each of them.

Are their statements born of stupidity or cynicism? Are they playing dumb? Who knows? Who cares? Either explanation disqualifies the candidate. At some point, they merge anyway. Eventually, the evil genius begins to believe his or her own press releases. And, at the same time, his or her habits get sloppy. Dumbed-down shoddy arguments become reflexes. The evil genius and the well-intentioned simpleton start off on different sides of the whirlpool, but they eventually spiral closer together until they wind up in the same place. To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, “Lead not morons, lest you become a moron.”

_________

1)  Anne C. Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made (New York: Doubleday, 2009), 303.

2) An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Rick Santorum was already out of the race. I had assumed this because almost nobody had heard anything from him for several months. I regret the error.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Hillary is Conway

I felt a great disturbance in the Commonwealth, as if thousands of voices suddenly cried out in horror and were suddenly silenced. Kentucky just suffered an abysmal election. Less than a third of registered voters (30.7%) participated, which means that Matt Bevin (R), the victor for governor, won with a scant 16%.

This utterly stunned disbelief was just how many people felt when Ronald Reagan won in 1980. Reagan, like Bevin, was long considered a political joke as this 1969 Mad Magazine parody shows. Matt Bevin is a Tea Party extremist who his fellow Republicans call a pathological liar. He claimed to have graduated from MIT and denies ever saying he would pull out of Medicare expansion. Both lies are on video.

Kentucky’s participation in Obamacare and Medicaid expansion had rapidly halved the state’s number of uninsured. Indeed, the set up of Kentucky's health exchange, Kynect, went so smoothly that it was held up as a national example. (By contrast, the federal end of the roll-out was initially plagued with hiccups.) Now those folks - over 400,000 - will probably lose their insurance. I have many friends who briefly enjoyed the first insurance coverage they had in their adult lives. Bevin has pledged to disconnect Kynect; but Gregg Stumbo, the Speaker of the state legislature, has vowed to fight him.

Matt Bevin's electoral opponent, Jack Conway, had previously failed to unseat Tea Party darling Rand Paul for the U.S. Senate. In both cases, Conway tried to appeal to the right and alienated his base. It is the standard playbook Kentucky Democrats use to lose an election.

There are too many truisms that describe this week’s election results: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Evil men succeed when good people do nothing. To those, I would like to add one of Harry Truman’s quotes on conservative Democrats: "When a Republican runs against a Republican, the Republican always wins." This is why you do not betray your base and pander to your opponents'.

The majority of Americans are not Republicans – certainly not hardcore conservatives. In fact, Democrats have historically enjoyed a slight edge in party identification polls. But despite this Republicans frequently succeed at the ballot box because they always vote. Accordingly, they benefit from low voter turnout. It's an old joke in Kentucky that they pray for rain on election day. But what is more, is that Republicans energize their base. Democrats are different: They hold their base at arm's length.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that that this does not work. Yes, sometimes particularly charismatic Democratic candidates can overcome this self-inflicted handicap, but they initially get in office because they do not have it yet. Disappointment comes later. We all recall that Barack Obama ran on "hope and change" in 2008, but in 1992, Bill Clinton ran on hope too. "The Man from Hope" had energized the base because his campaign embraced liberalism's accomplishments and played up that boyhood footage of him shaking hands with JFK. Declaring "the era of big government is over" came later.

Would this be a good time to mention that Bernie Sanders does better than Hillary Clinton in match-ups against Donald Trump? As Sanders understands, you need to energize the base. 

EDIT 11/08/15:

It may be harder for Bevin to get Kentucky out than most people previously thought. Let's hope so.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Misogyny? Seriously?

I am amazed that anyone is calling Bernie Sanders supporters misogynists.

Are there any male chauvinists in their ranks? No doubt some. All groups have unwelcome members that need to seriously revisit their politics on one issue or another and they should be called out on it. But they hardly define the Sanders movement. Or should we judge Hillary Clinton by her racist 2008 PUMA (Party Unity My Ass) supporters? The suggestion is just absurd.

Why? Because Sanders had effectively inherited the draft Elizabeth Warren movement. After Warren firmly said "NO" several times, they finally took the hint.* If you want to see the average Sanders fan, look at the average Warren fan. They are the same people.

Full disclosure: I am a Sanders supporter, in case you have not already guessed. Indeed, I have a Sanders t-shirt that is a revamped version of a Warren t-shirt - same artist, same caption: "Time for some tough love on Wall Street. Minus the love." As the caption suggests, we want a candidate that will fight for economic equality and punish financial malfeasance. Hillary Clinton does not strike us as that candidate. In fact, progressives have been disenchanted with Clinton's safe establishment stances for quite some time. Indeed, Clinton has been chillingly conservative for a Democrat.

Recently, two dubious accusations were leveled against Sanders by Clinton and her surrogates.

First, they mis-characterized Sander's stock comment that people "shouting" over the gun issue does nothing. He has been saying this for years, but Hillary Clinton spun it as Sanders trying to silence her. It may be a misunderstanding, but I doubt it.

Second, Clinton supporters said that it was a "condescending insult" for a Sanders aide to say they would consider her for vice president. If so, then it was a condescending insult when the Clinton campaign said the very same thing about Obama in 2008. The Obama camp's response was, "We're not running for vice president." But perhaps the Clinton camp does not remember 2008. (I doubt that too.)

Of course, polling shows that any gender gap between the two camps is statistically insignificant. The real differences between the two campaigns' supporters are age and race. The Sanders campaign is not a boys club populated with "Bernie Bros."

Let's not kid ourselves: I love Bernie Sanders and I hope he wins, but we all know that Elizabeth Warren was the progressive movement's first choice. We all know that if Warren had decided to run, nobody would be talking about Sanders today except in the same way they talk about Martin O'Malley, Lincoln Chafee, and Jim Webb. Who? Exactly. Sanders would be in the single digits and I would be wearing the Warren version of the t-shirt. Perhaps she would have tapped him to be VP. It would have been a dream ticket.

Obviously, that did not happen, But settling for Sanders has proven to be surprisingly exciting. A lot of us underestimated him and went into this only hoping to nudge Hillary Clinton to the left. (And it has indeed worked!) But it turns out that grumpy grandpa appeals to more people than me. Who knew? Now Sanders looks like he has a real chance. Indeed, the fact that he is getting such shoddy, desperate flack, suggests that another 2008-like upset might occur. And I'll happily take that.


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* In defense of those who persistently pestered Warren to run for president, she also repeatedly demurred to endorse Clinton (this video suggests why), so they read too much into that. Likewise, when Obama first ran in 2008, he promised to pull troops out of Iraq and redeploy th
em in Afghanistan. Doves had presumed this was just talk because although the Afghan War's popularity was falling, it was still over 50%. They had persuaded themselves that Obama would pull out of both once approval dropped below 50 - if not before. Obviously, that did not happen. In both cases, the political figures meant exactly what they said, but their supporters' wishful thinking rationalized something else. But, hey, a lot of politics is reading between the lines. Otherwise, what would we bloggers have to write about besides our cats?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Right is Always Wrong. Usually.

I am going to say something both controversial and obvious: Conservatism is always wrong.

Liberals are pretty hesitant to say that anything is always right or wrong. Such black and white claims are recklessly unrealistic and too easily disproved. Life just isn't like that. There are too often shades of gray. Moreover, such overconfident claims are fundamentally at odds with the liberal temperament which tends to look for the good in everyone. We look for commonalities in the human family and emphasize them in order to build compromises on common ground. It has frequently been President Obama's Achilles Heel. We are admittedly generous to a fault in that regard.

Of course, conservatives think we are generous to a fault in all regards.

Conservatives are often the opposite. They embrace a binary, us-vs-them mindset and try to frame issues in terms of moral absolutes with Jehovah on one side and Lucifer on the other. They ignore or disbelieve their leaders' scandals but instantly accept any groundless accusation made against the other side's - hence the endless conspiracy theories and imaginary non-scandals they level at the Clintons and Obama. I have been highly critical of the Clintons betraying the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, but I do not think that they had Vince Foster whacked and made it look like a suicide, as Rush Limbaugh perennially insists. Of course, no political stripe is immune to subscribing to conspiracy theories, but the binary mentality is more prone to them because the world is complex and it ironically has to be made more complex to fit a simplistic worldview.

Even when conservatives recognize that individuals or situations have shades of gray, black and white absolutes still define their value spectrum, regardless of circumstance. Everything is framed in terms of opposite poles. For example, they are not going to listen to Paul Krugman's Keynesian argument that deficit spending is sometimes beneficial and necessary.(1) To the conservative rank and file, deficits are always bad; thus raising the national debt ceiling to avoid default on the national debt is a species of treason. Conservative politicians therefore strive to prove their purity by out crazy-ing each other and playing chicken on the budget. Today, the Tea Party movement imposes a Reagan Test of ideological purity that not even Ronald Reagan could pass. But don't expect rank and file Republicans to admit it.

Of course, as George Orwell wrote in his famous essay "Notes on Nationalism," this binary thinking is found on both the left and the right. He uses the term "nationalism" broadly, taking it beyond a blind loyalty to nation-states, but ideologies as well. On atrocities, he wrote:
The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness.
But the mentality of a Marxist and a liberal are pretty different. On the contrary, liberals have the opposite problem because they are too quick to accept the conservative narrative. They almost reflexively believe conservatives' most outrageous anecdotes only to caution that the story in question is an isolated incident and not really representative of the program or policy being attacked. You see this played out on every pundit debate show. Only very rarely does an establishment Democratic pundit reply, "Wow. I had not heard about that, but I doubt that it actually happened the way you describe it - if at all. Almost all your examples turn out to be grossly distorted or outright urban legends. So I cannot go along and give you guys the benefit of the doubt anymore." That would be rude. Instead, they say, "Well, I certainly don't support that but -" The upshot is that the conservative has told a vivid story (which often trumps boring facts and figures with most audiences) and the liberal has failed to call bullshit and therefore comes off as weak and equivocating.(2) Clearly, Orwell don't apply here, conservatives' red menace fantasies not withstanding.

I have a handful of Republican friends, but they are more libertarian than conservative. For example, they support gay rights, a woman's right to choose, and marijuana legalization. Yes, we disagree on some things (mostly economic) but we agree on others. They do not have that binary, black and white mindset that I mentioned. Some are better and some are worse, however the worse ones have a more black and white mindset. Ironically, how black and white your worldview is falls along a gray-scale continuum.

So, in that spirit, I am going to make a highly qualified claim: Conservatism is always wrong.

The qualification is that I am talking about the ideology rather than the individual voter or politician. There are almost no issues where conservatives are uniquely correct about anything. They are only correct when they agree with liberals and everyone else. Doubt me? Name an exception:

Opposing Stalin? Liberals and leftists did too. Indeed, a lot of Marxists soured on Stalin, mostly because he was trying to kill them. Does any sane person think that Cold War era Democratic presidents like Truman, Kennedy, or Johnson were closet communists? I said sane: Obviously members of the John Birch Society and the KKK don't count. Nor do Glenn Beck fans. But I repeat myself.

Finding and fighting Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden? Um, yeah, that was not a big priority for the Bush administration despite the outgoing Clinton administration's warnings. Not before 9-11 and actually not much after either. One reason why Obama got Osama was that Bush was not really trying. Bush was much more interested in Saddam than Osama. Indeed, the fact that Obama got bin Laden torpedoes not only the conservative conspiracy theory that Obama is a secret Muslim who hates America but the broader one that liberals are weak on defense. You have to be a paranoid nut to believe either conservative canard.

But if a particular position or perspective is inherently conservative in character, it is probably spectacularly wrong whether we are talking about the economy, foreign policy, morality, or law enforcement. To rattle off a few: Conservatives opposed Social Security - wrong. They opposed Medicare and Medicaid - callous. They opposed the Civil Rights Act - bigoted. They opposed the Clean Air and Water Acts - senseless. Their economic policies caused the Great Depression and the crash of 2007 - catastrophe. They launched the War on Drugs and the prison industrial complex - an absolute disaster. They are on the wrong side of history on LBGT rights (in part because they oppose recognizing rights in general). They think sex ed classes promote teen pregnancy unless the curriculum is abstinence only. Obviously, it is the opposite. From the micro to the macro their notions of how the world works are just cruel jokes. These are the same people who said that listening to rock or smoking pot would turn you into a violent maniac. These are the same people who said playing Dungeons & Dragons would make you commit suicide.(3) They have been predicting the End Times since language was invented. As Benjamin Franklin gently mocked them, "The golden age is never the present age." I remember when The Late Great Planet Earth was in movie theaters in the late 1970s. Growing up, Sunday morning television was composed almost exclusively of televangelists warning of Armageddon and demanding money. The sole sane exception was "Star Trek" reruns. Why should anyone be surprised that they still think we found WMDs in Iraq or that Obamacare has "death panels"?

The only area in which conservatives are arguably correct is the second amendment. In theory. But no right is absolute, so they wind up always wrong in practice. As I wrote in my book, gun ownership is a personal right, but gun control is constitutional too. For gun owners, the only way around the "well-regulated militia" stumbling block is to argue that the phrase was only thrown in as an example and not the sole reason. From there, they must argue that the founders were vitally concerned with individual liberty generally. But to do that, they must also support birth control, abortion, gay rights, pornography, pot, and everything that cultural conservatives have historically opposed. Logically, you cannot argue for a broad interpretation of the second amendment without embracing a broad interpretation of the first. Therefore, there is a plausible libertarian argument for gun rights, but there is not a conservative one. So, yeah, conservatives are still always wrong.

Excuse this footnoted cri-de-coeur, but calling Republicans "The Party of No" is just too generous. (See? We are generous to a fault.) They are the Party of Wrong. They are always wrong because they are perpetually at war with liberty, equality, and democracy.

And to that we must add modernity and reality.

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(1) Deficit spending was just one way that Reagan broke the faith, but it was spectacularly damaging. Franklin D. Roosevelt ran deficits as well, but his government borrowing differed from Reagan's in two immense ways. First, FDR borrowed from American banks. Such domestic debts do not harm the overall economy because they are like borrowing from yourself: When the money is paid back, it goes right back into the American economy. Indeed, that money goes back into the American economy as soon as Uncle Sam spends it, stimulating the economy immediately. But when the rich sit on their money the economy is anemic. By contrast, Reagan borrowed from foreign banks. It also stimulated the economy as soon as it was spent on defense. But as the money gets paid back it leaves the U.S. economy. Second, FDR borrowed to pull us out of the Great Depression and fight WWII. These are what most historians call "damn good reasons." Reagan just wanted to claim he lowered your taxes. Of course, he didn't because borrowed money has to be paid back - with interest. He actually raised our taxes, only he did it during subsequent administrations. Reagan lambasted "tax-and-spend Democrats," but at least their programs were paid for. Reagan was a borrow-and-spend Republican. Also, the Reagan Administration deliberately ballooned the deficit to crowd out social spending. Their goal was hosing the poor, not fiscal responsibility. So I suppose that makes three big differences.

(2) Of course, there are good reasons for such caution. Sure, conservatives are usually lying, but you don't want to say that the one time they are not. For example, Ronald Reagan's Cadillac-driving "welfare queen" was a real person. But she was a genius con-artist who ran countless scams under countless names. Most aid recipients are honest and most cheaters get caught. And eventually even she got nabbed; so not only was she an outlier, the system worked. Conservatives certainly wouldn't say we should close banks because they get robbed and they definitely would not take that tack on fraud by defense contractors. You cannot call bullshit as reflexively as bull-shitters fabricate. On the other hand, a lot of establishment democrats don't like to call themselves liberals, so they are timid about defending liberal positions. That is a separate, but longstanding problem - hence these links to old articles. MSNBC is a relatively new thing.

(3) Mind you, "60 Minutes" swallowed the D&D panic too - which shows how quick the mainstream media (MSM) is to give conservative cranks legitimacy. Veracity does not really figure into their decision making. Being chronically wrong is no barrier to access. The MSM still think that Thomas Friedman is a genius and that Paul Ryan is a serious thinker on the budget. They still solicit Dick Cheney's and Henry Kissinger's opinions on foreign affairs. But advocate Canadian style single payer to fix our country's healthcare mess and you are written off as a crank. No public platform for you! The MSM eventually drops these things once they become embarrassing, but conservatives keep running with them.