Whither Parties?

I think Corey Robin is drinking too much of his own Kool-Aid.

The problem with the Republican Party is a fundamental problem affecting the root of party politics, especially the way it has evolved in the past few decades in United States, not anything related to “conservatism” or any other ideology.  It is rooted in institutions and the same problem, albeit of less extreme variety for now, is bedeviling the Democratic Party.

The so-called Tea Party in the Republican Party actually consists of two distinct movements that have gotten conflated, both by their own politics and by the outside observers.  They are, in context of 2016 elections, the Ted Cruz Tea Party and the Donald Trump Tea Party.  They share the same trait:  they are outsiders to the traditional Republican machinery.  The crucial distinction is that the Ted Cruz Tea Party has a fairly clearly defined political agenda and is interested in capturing the machinery to use it (and abuse it) to advance their own agenda, regardless of the medium to long term effect on their party or the rest of the political landscape, while the Trump Tea Party is a heterogeneous lot without a clear political aim but is characterized by deep distrust of the existing political institutions.  On the Democratic side, the history of this conflict is rather different and the conflict has been taking place much longer, but is of similar nature.

In the abstract, the power of party institutions comes in two flavors.  First, the formal powers of the institutions allow those who wield it to block adoption of the alternatives they disapprove of while accelerating and otherwise favoring the adoption of those that they do–negative and positive agenda powers, as the political science lingo labels them.  However, this power is fragile:  it can be deprived if an opposing coalition emerges with both sufficient numbers and sufficiently clearly defined aims to the contrary.  No democratic institution (and the same logic applies even to most non-democratic institutions) can force through outcomes that are actively opposed by a very large number of people, especially those with whom they share the institution–such as other members of the same party, other members of the legislature, and so forth.  The more important power of the institutions, then, is the ability of those who control it to define the conventional wisdom, or the narrative, that can serve as the focal point, to convince other participants in the political process who do not have clearly defined goals, preferences, and beliefs that they should want X, even without clear knowledge thereof, because X is the preferred alternative of “the party” or whoever.  In the much ballyhooed and now increasingly discredited (undeservingly so, in both cases) book, The Party Decides, both forces are present:  the party’s choice serves as the focal point for the many, many voters who don’t know and don’t care much, while the formal powers can be used to slap down the handfuls of troublemakers with actual dissenting agendas.

The problem for the party is that while the former, the more formal set of powers, has grown, the latter, the informal foundations on which they are built upon, has been badly degraded.  Mayhew, in 1974, already foresaw the impending crisis for the party:   rival power centers to Congress, like the president, can pursue their agenda without respect for the kind of consensus sought by the Congressional party leaders; ideological and other factions with their own agendas can publicize their aims and mobilize support for them through extralegislative/extrapolitical means; and the changes in technology was making it easier for these rivals to the traditional party politics to intrude on the leaders.  (The entire second half of the classic 1974 Mayhew book is on this topic–but no one seems to remember any of these!)

The considerable formal power of the party leadership is a draw for the factions that are not so much interested in maintaining institutions and the associated powers stable, but in using them to actively pursue their agenda.  The first serious civil war over this in the Republican Party took place in 1990s already, that pitted Newt Gingrich, who, despite the reputation he acquired as the Speaker, was actually interested in building a long term power base for the Republican Party on broad consensus (every one of the Contract with America items drew support from a majority, or at least, a very large minority, among the Democratic members of Congress, after much wheeling and dealing behind the scenes) against Tom DeLay, whose attitude towards the power might be summed by paraphrasing the quote attributed to Madeline Albright, “what’s the use of all the power of the party leaders if we don’t use it to aggressively advance our ideological agenda?”  Needless to say that DeLay won and this set the pattern for the rest of the GOP:  the ideological faction should actively seek to capture power, use it to advance their agenda aggressively as well as to beat down their intraparty rivals who get in their way.  The Ted Cruz Tea Party is the natural progression of this attitude:  the Republican Party is useful for them only so far as it can be used as a tool to implement their ideological view as policy.  Among the Democrats, the same civil war took place much farther into the past, in the guise of “House reforms,” where the liberal wing took power and purged the Old Guard who were interested more in maintaining internal balance within the Democratic Party.   The conventional wisdom holds that this “strengthened” the Democratic Party.  This would only be true if parties were to be viewed solely as the vehicle for making policy, in much the same manner as DeLay and, later, the Ted Cruz Tea Party conceive parties to be, with the most minimum of winning coalitions.  If the parties are to be viewed as a vehicle for maintaining balance and stability, this was a crippling blow that contributed to the poor electoral fortunes of the Democrats later.

The other Tea Party, the Donald Trump Tea Party, exists on a completely different plane.  It is not made up of ideologues who are particularly interested in implementing a particular program, assuming that they are at all interested in the program.  It consists of those who are justifiably suspicious of those who control the machinery of power, who feel that their interests, even if they cannot articulate them clearly, are not being taken into account by the powerful who are too busy with their own agendas and shutting out all their rivals by using and abusing the formal powers that they control.  Ultimately, it is a matter of trust–we don’t know what exactly we want, we don’t know what exactly they should be doing that they are not, but we know that these guys are not our friends and are looking to cheat us at every opportunity.  And they are right, for the ideologues have no interest in wasting time on those who cannot help them achieve their policy goals.  To the degree that the Ted Cruz Tea Party was mainly organized to topple the power of the incumbent leadership of the Republican Party, both “Tea Parties” made for natural allies–they shared a common enemy.  Once the Ted Cruz Tea Party, or at least its fellow travelers became powerful in Washington, they became the enemy of the Trump Tea Party, as much as the older Republican leaders.  In a sense, the increasingly narrow policy pursuits by the Ted Cruz Tea Party, made it even more blind to the discontent of the Trump Tea Party and may well have earned enmity faster.  The defeat of Eric Cantor, if not an actual member of the Ted Cruz Tea Party then certainly a close ally, by a “Tea Party-aligned” insurgent movement in the Republican primaries in 2014–supposedly a good Republican year–should have drawn everyone’s attention to the peculiar divisions within the Republican Party.   As an analogue, imagine what might happen if Anheuser Busch decided to get rid of all cheap beer in favor of expensive beer that “you want.”  Some people might pay extra for Bud Light because they like its taste, but vast majority of Bud Light drinkers who do so because it is cheap or for any number of reasons other than taste will be outraged and may never buy another A-B product again.

In a sense, Democrats already had their own version of Eric Cantor, already, in the person of Bill Clinton and the DLC.  However, unlike Cantor, the first Clinton moved the Democrats in a different direction.  By 1980s, the Democrats already had a leadership that was interested in using the Democratic Party as the means to advance a liberal agenda, and that was losing them elections–Mike Downey, a congressman from 1980s, supposedly said, “If we wanted to pass a bill that suited the tastes of the average person, we have to pass the Republican bill.”  Bill Clinton and DLC did not argue that the party should deemphasize the policy orientation in favor of maintaining stability, but that it should use its powers to pursue a different set of policy, those that, by the standards of 1980s and early 1990s, may not be so polarizing.  Or, in other words, the Republican bill that Downey was complaining about.  And, as the president, Clinton did exactly that.  For all the apparent animosity between Gingrich and the Clintons, they actually made an excellent team:  Gingrich, in his desire to build a governing party that was stable and enjoyed a broad base of support, was willing to pass legislation that suited many Democrats.  Clinton, of course, wanted to pass bills that met the taste of the average man, which Gingrich supplied.

Notwithstanding the difference in the direction of the policy, the Democratic Party today is, no less than the Republicans, a tool subservient to the pursuit of policy:  for many, the Democratic Party and the direction of the policy that it pursues are indistinguishable.  The internal struggle within the party, then, is not over whether it should be policy oriented or stability-oriented, but simply over what direction the party should pursue in terms of policy.  The folly of DLC and its legacy, for many, is that it focused on the policy that suited the taste of the “average man,” which, in 1990s, was in accord with Gingrich, not that the Democratic Party was reduced to a policymaking tool, in any direction.  The answer by the liberal critics of the current leadership is that it should pursue more liberal policy–not so much that it should stop focusing on particulars of policy questions and start listening and rethinking about how to address the unmet needs.

The catch, then, is that the direction of the policy does not matter much.  The more narrowly a party might be focused on the policy pursuits, the more likely it is to leave many of its supporters behind.  The leftward orientation of the Democratic Party in 1970s and 1980s led to the abandonment of the white working class who backed Reagan, not necessarily because these voters were “conservative” but because they could no longer trust the Democrats to be concerned over their interests.  (It is noteworthy that, vindicating Mayhew, the presidential tide turned far earlier and more decisively than the Congressional.)   The rightward turn by Bill Clinton and continued by Hillary Clinton does not change the fundamental dynamic–they simply alienate a different group of voters.  If the Democrats turn left again, the same scenario would repeat itself.  The trouble with the Democrats, then,  is exactly the same problem as that divides the Cruz Tea Party and Trump Tea Party, at least in institutional terms.  It is a divide between policy-seekers and insurance-seekers, those who want to do things and change the world in their image vs. those who need protection from the changes, including those that the former want to bring upon the world.

The Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic Party is primarily interested in the party machinery and its associated powers as tools for making policy.  They want to know what policy they should pursue because, other than making policy and the details thereof, they have no sense of what a party is supposed to do.  Their opponents–the rank and file Democratic supporters who were unsatisfied with the party leaders, much more than the liberal critics thereof–who found their voice in the person of Bernie Sanders in 2016, do not have a clear idea of what specific policy they want to see pursued–at least going beyond some popular ideas that do not collectively make up a coherent”ideology.”  However, like the Trump Tea Party, they also know that the single-minded pursuit of policy by the party insiders is drawing them away from paying attention to their needs and interests, even if they cannot precisely spell them out in terms that can be translated to bills.  Once again, the problem is ultimately that of trust–which has been showing up in the polls repeatedly.

However institutionally analogous they might be, the discontented Democrats do not overlap much with the Trump Tea Party.  This needs to be made clear, as it is critical in shaping the electoral landscape today.  The former are, after all, Democrats, or at least, Democratic sympathizers, while the latter are Republicans or Republican sympathizers.  The relatively few real independents in the electorate might swing between the two camps, but, again, they are relatively few.  The average Sanders voter, for all the disappointment, is a Democratic-sympathizer and he will not turn.  Who might, had things been progressing differently, is a sizable minority composed of the true independents, but the prospects that Trump might lure away many of the independents who supported Sanders seem to be dimming daily, due to his own wackiness.  If the choice is ultimately that of “trust,” Trump has not exactly shown himself to be a trustworthy person for many beyond his relatively narrow band of fans.

The likely failure of Trump, however, does not obviate the inherent problems facing the parties, both of them.  The second face of power, the trust and the associated ability to act as the focal point for the uncertain partisans, is ultimately what sustains the first power.  The overreliance on the first face of power has effectively broken the latter.  When the narrative breaks, it is not easy to put it back together, without some great big myth and a larger than life founding father–an FDR, a Reagan, or a Lincoln.  All the institutional rigging to shore up the first face will not be enough–indeed, it may even exacerbate the erosion of trust and subvert the second face of power even more.  This is the real danger that faces the American party system today that goes far beyond the problems of “ideology.”

PS.  I think a simple way of describing the problem (which, incidentally describes the variance-centric thinking vs. the means-based thinking) is that the dissenting voices in both parties want someone who listens, who recognize that the answers are still problematic, not someone who has answers, even better answers.  Answers, like the means, may be right on average, but often wrong–perhaps, even wrong for everyone (e.g. the mean prediction for the number of heads of a fair coin will ALWAYS be wrong for any single coin toss.)  The important thing, rather than getting the mean right, might be to recognize the variances exist–ie. how wrong the answers are for different peoples.  This is all the more important because, when “the answers” become a narrative, like the standards of “cuteness,” the variance is significantly underestimated.  The correct answer may be .5, rather than .6, but it will still be wrong on the next coin toss.  Blaming the coin for not producing just half a head, rather than one full head or zero head will not resolve the problem.

PPS.  The great insight that Bill Clinton and DLC had was to ask, as the Democratic Party was committed to becoming a vehicle for policy, whether pursuing the policy that was against the wishes of the average man was a good idea.  Now, three decades later, his wife faces an altogether different challenge, where the average man does not know what exactly he should want any more, but does not trust the people who are running Washington to be interested in him.  The attitude taken by both parties was to exploit the average man’s uncertainty and ignorance to their advantage, further subverting his trust.  So, now what?

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DLC, Then and Now

I got around to re-reading the “Politics of Evasion,” DLC’s “mission statement,” so to speak from 1989, for some reason, and I was staggered by how different today’s “DLC” politics is from that of its beginnings.

The original politics of DLC was focused largely on winning back working class whites back to Democrats.  Cultural conservatism, so to speak–hunting, guns, “low-class” culture with common touch (i.e. “redneckness”) etc:  all these were as crucial to the DLC message as free trade and deregulation of the economy.  While their economic program might not have been especially welcome to the working class, they were already discounting the Democratic economic program after the Oil Shock and Stagflation of 1970s and the Reagan-era economic recovery of 1980s.  Their social program, in other words, were to serve as a beard to cover the dismantling an economic agenda that did not count for a great deal.  (Yes, the poor economy helped WJC get elected in 1992, but there was no demand for a massive government program to get things going–if anything, the Clinton “stimulus package” was met with widespread skepticism once he entered office.)

Fast forward to 2016, the economic situation, especially for the working class, is precarious.  The economic message mattes more than it did in 1990’s.  It will not be easy to cover an unfriendly economic program with the guise of sociocultural sympathy.  But not only is the Democratic insiders’ economic message unwelcome to the white working class, they are offering no beard to cover up for it.  Rather, the Democrats’ message is defiantly in favor of social liberalism, even on the matters, rightly or wrongly, many in the working class might be fearful about–e.g. terrorism and immigration.  The defense offered by the Democrats echoes that of 1989 yet again:  because of the Democrats’ natural demographic advantage, driving up turnout will ensure Democratic electoral success regardless.

Unlike in 1989, there is more basis for putting faith in the turnout “solution.”  Democrats do enjoy overwhelming advantage for the demographic segments that make up increasingly larger shares of the population and, unlike 1980s, there is no clear evidence that they are turning against the Democrats.  If anything, the current trends among the Republicans would only reinforce that trend.  In this sense, perhaps Democrats may not need a “new thinking” after all.  Still, the idea that one could maintain a status quo that many find distasteful strikes me as a lazy thinking that cannot end well.

Things That We Don’t See vs. Things That We Do.

Corey Robin has an interesting perspective (I have no ideas where this is from besides his Twitter stream) on the goings on in today’s politics.

If you have been following my posts, you’d have noticed that I am fully in agreement with his broad view that something huge is going on in politics today, not just the Democrats or even United States.  The argument that I’d been offering is that the mutually contradictory twin roles of institutions, as both a tool that can help the agenda setters advance their interests at the expense of those outside the privileged circle, and as the positive-sum focal point that guides those outside to rally to the coalition around the institution-keepers for all their mutual and collective benefit, has reached a crisis point where the masses (of different strains) no longer trust the institutions or its keepers–where the underappreciated price of agenda-setting has gotten so big for those who are being agenda-set that they are willing to force the agenda setters to pay  a big price.  Both Trump and Sanders, Brexit and other assorted anti-system politics, are symptoms of this crisis in confidence.  Where there is no confidence in the very words of the agenda setters, the questions about how the agenda should be, in which direction–i.e. the ideology/policy questions–no longer even make sense.  This leaves, as Robin astutely points out, the conventional observers of politics confused.

The problem, however, is twofold.  First, the status quo is, whether we like it or not, powerful.  It will do what it can do protect its present interests.  Yes, Sanders and Trump represent powerful and very unhappy coalitions on the left and right, respectively.  Yet, they are not the changes that the incumbents elites want.  The insiders will bring everything they have to stop them, even at the cost of losing elections–as the Republicans are eager to be doing– and the chances that the rebels will fail are very considerable.  Second, even if we are able to spot the changes by observing subtle clues under the surface, the evidence that we can marshal, by necessity, will be limited and circumstantial, hardly a “slam dunk” for those who are not wiling to believe.  The “Vox Generation,” as Robin contemptuously calls today’s “public intellectuals,” are true believers in the conventional wisdom without subtlety or depth of analysis.  They trust academic theories that spout conventional wisdom as much as their forebears trusted the political insiders to explain what is “really” going on in politics, and these folks control the outlets through which new ideas can reach a wide audience.  Maybe the insurgents will win. Maybe we who are unseen by anyone will have seen them coming (I do not believe that this is all that likely–although more likely than the conventional wisdom might believe.)  But since nobody saw our predictions, “nobody saw them coming,” cry will the Vox of tomorrow (which could be the Vox).

I think there is a potential for something big building in many places around the world. I do not see the probability of these pressures adding up to something big, in the end, to be very high.  The spectre is worth paying attention to, but it is dangerous to make too much of it.  It’s like a 9th inning walk-off home run:  it’s common enough that one should not be surprised to see them, especially with some hitter-pitcher-ballpark combinations.  But no one should count on them.

Inequality and Economic Policy

One of my favorite books is Mammon and the Pursuit of Empirewhich throws an interesting curveball at the well-known proposition that empiring and colonialism were net money losers for the imperial powers of 19th century:  yes, the British Empire was a big money loser, but it was a money maker for the English upper classes.  Indeed, Davis and Huttenback went so far as to claim that the empire was, in effect, a very expensive scheme for upward, regressive redistribution of wealth.

It is probably silly to argue that the imperialism was, at its core, an economic scheme per se, especially one designed to enrich the rich at the expense of the poor, even if it became one in practice.  Rather, it was, as many intellectual historians pointed out, an intellectual phenomenon rooted on philosophical basis.  Imperialists knew, even in 19th century, that colonialism was expensive, but they were willing to go through with it for the sake of “white man’s burden” or whatever.

But even as the desire to bear the “white man’s burden” was disproportionately heavy among the upper classes, the actual burden they bore was tiny,  since they held the political power to force the lower classes to share in bearing this burden without due compensation.  In contrast, the lower classes did not share the same romantic sentiment that extolled the “civilizing mission,” being “unsophisticated rubes” that they were, beyond being properly rectified on the proper moral imperatives as the contemporary elites doubtlessly snarked.  An American soldier serving in the Philippines in early 20th century, when Teddy Roosevelt placed William Howard Taft in charge of the place, is supposed to have quipped, with regards the Filipinos in general, “He may be a friend of Big Bill Taft, but he ain’t no friend of mine.”

Thus, we have a strange picture:  the upper classes may “mean well,” whatever that means, and are willing to bear burden for it, but they can lighten their own burden because they have the political power to achieve this.  Thus, the “white man’s burden” being borne by the whiter white men is vastly lighter, if at all a burden, than the not-so-white white men who are less able to shift away their burden.  The upper classes’ vision for reshaping the world is shared with neither the people overseas on the receiving end nor the lower classes at home who bear a lot heavier burden.  If the latter did not care much for empire building to begin with, they certainly won’t care for it when the imperialism is squeezing them dry.  The polarization in opinion with regards the continued pursuit of the said policy sharpens because of the uneven distribution of the burden.

This is not just about “colonialism,” of course.  The abandonment of the “Napoleonic” foreign policy outlook by France came about with the rise of the 3rd Republic and the broader distribution of political power among the French public.  This was the continuation of the peasants’ counterrevolution that I had remarked on earlier:  while the French peasants were happy at the elimination of the unfair arrangements with the nobility that the Revolution brought about, they did not care for the war and disruptions all over Europe for the ideals and strategic interests that they did not care for.  After 1871, even as they were unhappy at the defeat, they did not care for an activist revanchist policy against Germany.  The peasants of France were willing to let go of Alsace and Lorraine, as long as France was not attacked herself–which would remain the case as long as Bismarck, who understood the situation, remained in charge in Berlin.  The French 3rd Republic became a “conservative” power not just because it was weak, defeated power, but also because of the redistribution of the political power within, with the “peasants” interested mostly in keeping the limited gains of revolution in their hands rather than remaking the world outside capturing power.  While the French did pursue an imperial policy in Africa and Asia, it was more a sop for the Napoleonic remnants who could not remake Europe, which became too dangerous in the eyes of the “peasants” who now held the dominant position domestically.  Tellingly, the French colonial army was an all-volunteer force, not even always composed of French citizens, (the Foreign Legion was created specifically to serve in North African colonies.) separate from the regular army composed of conscripts.  No “regular” French citizen served in the colonies.

This bears remarkable similarity to what is going on today.  The modern elites, not unlike their forbears 100+ years ago, are eager to remake the world to their liking, in all manner of realms.  The “peasants” of today are not necessarily unhappy with all the changes they propose, but are interested only in limited changes that improve their well being, not the grand vision of the future that today’s imperialists/revolutionaries promise.  Today’s peasants are no less clear eyed than their forefathers:  disruptions impose severe costs in their lives and they lack the means to insure themselves against them.  The elites will not pay much for the changes they bring about, if they they go bad, and may even profit.  Not so for the masses.  This cuts across “ideologies,” to the degree that both left and the right, as conventionally defined, have become revolutionary propositions, simply pointing to different directions in which the world is to be remade drastically.  The peasants don’t care for either direction.

This is not to say that all peasants are homogeneous in their desires:  while they may agree on their collectively “conservative” interests (in the sense of keeping the changes modest and “close to home,” rather than far reaching and costly ventures to remake the world), they don’t necessarily agree on what modest and close-to-home changes deserve priority and who deserve the trust to implement these changes.  These do not seem especially unbridgeable gaps, however, even if it may be beyond the ability of a Sanders or a Trump in 2016.  (well, we may never know if Sanders could have drawn support from the Republican-leaning “peasants” I suppose.)  Trump’s supporters, for example, are not against bigger government:  they would be happy with a free public college system, for example, if it were packaged appropriately.  Many of them are known to be happy with a single payer health care system, if they could trust who was proposing it.

This in turn, reflects yet another paradox:  Sanders and Trump are not leading “revolutions,” but, in a sense, “democratic counterrevolutions,” against the undemocratic excesses of the “revolutionary vanguard” gone mad on a cocktail of unchecked power and their own “ideals.”  I am not sure if this is necessarily a bad thing.  Political inequality indirectly gets economic inequality.  Political power, in form of the power to set the agenda, is the power to gamble at public expense.  In effect, political power provides those who hold it to buy insurance for themselves in case their decisions go sour.  With unequal distribution of political power, the few elites can gamble at the expense of everyone and buy good insurance just for themselves, ensuring that, in the long run, only they profit (or at least suffer minimal losses).  Broader distribution of power requires needing to buy more, broader insurances, or quit gambling if insurances get too expensive.  If you are a gambling addict, however, the preferred course of action is to rig the institutions so that the rest of the public cannot easily stop you from gambling at their expense.  You can, if you hold unequal power, and the consequence is a growth in economic inequality.

Juxtapositions in Historical Art

I always thought this painting, depicting Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, was very peculiar.  The dark-complected union officer, second from the right, is General Ely Parker, a Seneca chieftain who also served as a member of Grant’s staff (yes, he physically wrote the surrender documents), while standing behind him is George Armstrong Custer, whose reputation among Native Americans is, let’s say, less than stellar (This is somewhat unfair, since his relationship with the Plains tribesmen is rather complicated.  The relationship among different Native American tribes was a bit complicated and several tribes that were enemies of the Lakota did actively support the US government, most notably the Crow.  Among the Crow, apparently, Custer supposedly enjoyed a fine reputation, but I cannot find references now.)  and, more important, Custer was not actually at the Appomattox Court House for the surrender ceremony.  I don’t know the chronology of the painting, but I suspect mid 20th century.  That makes for a very odd period in US history, which the painting reflects even more than the history, a hundred years prior, that it supposedly depicts.

Formulaic Thinking, Cargo Cults, and “Science” (in its varied guises)

I had earlier wondered if the Cargo Cult can be broken–or, perhaps, even “should be” broken–if the cargo keeps flowing.  The situation is analogous, in a sense, to why there are neither true believers nor atheists in the fox hole, as the saying goes.  Soldiers and sailors do not necessarily know why or how bad or good things happen.  They believe that the world around them is complex enough that no simple “theory” is good enough and that they lack both the time and the wherewithal to come up with sufficiently “good” theories, if it is at all possible.  They also reside in a world where the good and the bad are, literally, a matter of life or death.  They are not sufficiently invested in any theory being right or wrong to risk their life and limb just to learn a bit more of the “the truth.”  So they are superstitious, not necessarily because they don’t know the “science,” (if anything, they are far more aware of the nuances and the “variance” thereof) but because they are not invested in proving any theory right or wrong.  Notice that this logic applies to the “anti-science” as well as to science.  They may take “lucky charms” of various kinds seriously enough, but they don’t trust them so much that they are willing to risk their safety on the chance that the charm is indeed so “lucky.”  Thus, they are just superstitious enough to believe in all manner of totems, but they are not so superstitious as to “trust” them.

In most walks of life, even if the stakes are not nearly as high as those facing soldiers and sailors, the same attitude prevails:  life may be complex in totality, but abiding by simple rules, accepted on the premise that everyday things are the way things usually are and “should be,” is usually good enough.  Following formulas keeps you on the safe side most of the time, while keeping you away from undue risk and headaches because the world does not change so drastically often.  Thus, people are creatures of habit, inherently “conservative” in their worldview, usually unwilling to change their minds quickly without a good reason–but not so wedded to their worldview that they are unwilling to change what they think even in face of a “good enough reason,” without attendant risks.  So even socially conservatively minded people, as long as their contact with transgenders is limited and have no reason to be biased against them, might be willing to rethink their opinion if asked nicely, for example.  The caveat “without attendant risks,” however, looms large here:  can the same approach be used to change people’s opinion about guns?  About Muslims?  Heck, even about a lot of race-related questions?  Transgenders, as a group, are simply “a bit odd” in the minds of many–even those who are predisposed to oppose their way of life.  They lack “good enough reason” to oppose them.  Hostility to guns and Muslims, however, belongs to a different plane.  The beliefs may or may not be justified on factual grounds, but there is a widespread perception of physical danger and direct harm that they pose, even with a small probability.  There is a “good reason” that people may persist in their belief in face of attempts to convince them otherwise.  For comparison, one might say that it is easy for a scientist to convince a sailor to start using compass (or, perhaps, to start wearing a red shirt, if the former can convince the latter, rightly or wrongly, the red shirt helps him stay safe) but not to convince him to stop carrying a parrot, if the sailor is convinced that the parrot keeps him away from shoals.  Starting to use the compass (or wear a red shirt) seemingly imposes little cost but promises a chance of potentially large benefits.  It’s a lottery ticket worth buying.  But people will not take up what they consider a big risk without due compensation, at the very least.  Taking away a sailor’s parrot offers him nothing.

To elaborate further on the point I was raising the other day, then, “scientific progress” is an inherently risky process.  “Science” demands that those who have been following a well-established set of routines to stop following them and start introducing variations, just to see what happens.  But every routine is characterized by a belief that it “works,” that following it brings considerable benefits and that not doing so is quite costly.  If the Aztecs reap the benefits of sunlight–huge, obviously–in return for sacrificing conquered subjects, which, for Aztecs is very easy, thanks to their warlike nature, why would they want to risk the world without sunlight for the trivial gain like making nice with the pathetic Tlaxcalans?  Existing mindset–the “culture” or “affect,” depending on whether you were trained in anthropology or political psychology–shapes how people value the consequences of the roads not taken, of the routines being broken.  They are never wrong because there is no evidence to say otherwise, because those paths are not taken.  All data comes from the paths that were taken, and naturally, offer justification for the the broad status quo, except perhaps for incremental “improvements” that may or may not be justified–perhaps cutting off Tlaxcalans heads before cutting out their hearts would make the sun rise faster, or not….  If the Tlaxcalans were not so easy to capture for human sacrifice, maybe things would be different, or not.  After all, ensuring that the sun keeps rising is a hugely important thing.  How do you know if the sun will rise again without the blood flowing?  That might be too huge a risk to take…especially since there is, by definition, NO evidence whatsoever to back it up.  The only thing that enables this leap to be taken is, literally, one of faith, justified by no evidence but a set of contrarian beliefs, as per Kierkegaard’s argument (I think I’m linking to the right book…)..

This leads to a curious paradox, in which “science” and “technology” often wind up being at odds with each other.  While “technology” might depend on “scientific” understanding, it rests on the acceptance of the status quo and the need for incremental improvement of the formulas.  It does not question the validity of everyday things or raise awkward question.  It simply says, yes, the formulas are inherently right, but we can add this one tweak and we can do better.  This was literally being done, to keep up the Ptolemaic astronomy in the Middle Ages:  an extensive system of “tweaks,” in form of epicycles, were added to the basic Ptolemaic formula to keep the basic structure intact.  The skepticism undergirding “science” does not, however, accept the status quo as given.  The formulas are not “inherently right,” but only provisionally so.  To learn where and when the formulas are not, some crazy risks, potentially with big repercussions, need to be taken contrary to things that “everyone knows” to be “obviously” true.   What’s worse, the skepticism yields no obvious short term benefits:  while Copernican theory made the calculations vastly easier, by reducing the number of epicycles that were required, the basic structure was still fundamentally “wrong” in both logical and empirical sense.  It took centuries of additional refinement to get to the classical physics as we understand it, and, other than the computational ease, there was no “good” reason to take Copernicus seriously when his book was published.  As long as the argument was not offensive, however, there was no good reason to overtly “reject” it, much the way social conservatives who partook in the Brockman/Kalla study found little reason to persist in their hostility towards transgenders.  Indeed, without the controversies wrapped up in the Reformation and papal politics, Copernican science might have won over by osmosis anyways.  But, politics happen and Galileo was a prickly and arrogant blowhard who stepped on many toes.

This paradox flies in the face of the popular understanding of “science.”  What people take to be “science” is in fact technology.  Yet, with enough epicycles, you can make creationism compatible with vaccines, oil deposits, and even fossils, at least for the common audience.  From the perspective of the sailor, the question becomes why he can’t keep both the parrot and the compass, and the argument against the parrot is not particularly convincing, given the potential “risks” involved.  The truth is that there is precious little argument, at least in the short term, for “science.”  “Science” will not make us happier or wealthier.  It may not even make us “wiser” until much later than we’d like. So why should we give up our formulas for them, especially if its practitioners are being a collective ass?  Given the proclivity of the social sciences to butt in on controversies of the day, coupled with the far larger uncertainties inherent in topics of research among social sciences, this is especially a pertinent question for them.

Much the same argument prevails in the public policy realm as well:  people are willing to partake in, essentially, a superstitious activity in face of what appears to be a very real risk–against immigration, Muslims, EU, etc.  Are these irrational and foolish?  Perhaps.  But what assurances can you offer against the perceived risks, other than ridicule those who fear them for fearing them in the first place and call them names?  That can only ensure that the argument against fear, already imperiled because of the very real presence of the fear–even if the object of that fear may not be as real as it is deemed–will be rejected with certainty:  not only are people afraid, they are forced to deal with those who are at best uncaring, callous, and oblivious, and at worst, actively seeking to prey on them. If people are behaving formulaically, they often do so for a consistent, even if not always logical, set of reasons.  They can be approached by better understanding where their formulas come from and what sustains them–although success may not always be guaranteed, as per Aztecs and human sacrifice.  It is foolish to believe that they can be simply supplanted by hectoring and ridiculing them.  (Ironically, of course, the same argument would apply to those on the opposite side–as much as Sanders and Trump supporters, in their respective camps, are “odd” and subscribe to formulas that seem “strange,” the supporters of the conventional wisdom also subscribe to various formulas that do not always have a logical underpinning other than they “work” empirically–see this essay for a further exposition.)  Perhaps, if they cannot be dealt with peacefully, they can be consquistadored, like the Aztecs, and converted at the sword point.  But that too is a serious undertaking.  No matter what the recourse, this is a challenge that needs to be taken seriously, which very few seem eager to partake in.

Pathologies of Modern American Party Politics…

When I used to teach about American politics, the theme of the course ran much along the lines of this recent article in The Atlantic:  how the kinds of politics that we often find “corrupt” and “grubby” provided for stability in politics while trying to do away with them necessarily made for more chaos.  It is tempting, then, as the article seems to suggest, that simply re-inserting more “corrupt” practices (deregulating money and opening the door to more “earmarks” and other forms of pork barrel politics, for example) would help restablize the politics.

This is, I think, badly mistaken.  While it is true that “corrupt” practices were common during eras of more stable politics, they were themselves symptoms, not necessarily causes, of what really brought about that stability.  What made for stability in the American politics of the past was, to use the words of Tip O’Neill, “all politics were local.”  However, the localized orientation of the politics took different forms in different eras.  During the 19th century, the local focus of the politics was the local party organization, perjoratively called “machines.”  While many trafficked in pork barrel politics and other “corrupt” practices, this was a supplement, rather than the main activity:  what made the “machines” work was that they organized for socialization of their would-be-supporters at the local level, through among other things, staging parades, picnics, and other social events involving large scale participation among the locals, what Michael McGerr described as “popular politics.”  While devoid of “policy” content, they helped reinforce the sense of community and trust in local political leaders:  while they may not always agree–or even know what to agree on, given the complexities of politics–they could be assured that they were dealing with the members of the same communities with broadly shared values, principles, and interests who could be trusted to do the right thing.

After the decline of the machine politics came the era of personalized politics, or the “home style” as described by Richard Fenno.  The centerpiece of this era was the local incumbent politician rather than an organized machine, but the key to the politicking remained the same.  Rather than spend too much time on the technical details of policy, the politician would spend most of the time communicating with the locals as a local, building a sense of trust in himself as herself as a good member of the community who shares its values, principles, and interests, and indeed, someone who could be trusted to do the right thing, even if the details might remain murky and unclear.

Localized politics traffics in less than rigid adherence to principles, and that is the problem for many “purists.”  Radiolabs, on public radio, had a curious story some time ago about a transgender person who became the mayor of a small town in Oregon.  Rural Oregon is not exactly a hotbed of social liberalism:  indeed, the town in the story is a rather staid, quite socially conservative place.  However, the difference is that the transgender person who was elected mayor was a local, whom everyone knew for decades and liked, so to speak.  The sense of broadly shared values, interests, and principles went much deeper than the mere appearance and the fact that he became a she.  The “trust” transcended the mere technical details like biology.  To the outsiders who are not privy to the sense of community and trust that undergirded this peculiar turn of politics, of course, this is corruption and deviation.  The “facts” of politics are so obvious and fundamental that the vague and undefined “community values” and such nonsense might seem trivial next to the principle.  For those to whom “politics” comes first, these eccentricities must be stamped out.

There are times when the primacy of politics does take the center stage.  It is worth noting that the era of machine politics comes to an end in McGerr’s account as the Great Depression starts unfolding.  The politics of personalized and localized trust is inherently “conservative” in the sense of preserving the status quo.  The politicians and/or machine seek subsidies from the national politics to further the local activities that reinforce the community values and trust that, after all, keep them in office.  In return, they are happy to keep the status quo going and keep trouble off the table.  If the status quo is going fundamentally askew, bringing misery upon many, the personalized and localized trust of the individual politicians may not be enough to keep them in office–especially if they are seen as the defenders of the “wrong” side in national politics.  This is what happened to the Republicans in the New Deal Era and, to a lesser extent, the Democrats in 1994.  Many politicians who were well-known for establishing and maintaining excellent ties to their local communities were nevertheless swept out of office due to their association with the “wrong” side of politics.

Survival of these “personalized and localized trust” politicians in an era of major national turmoils is predicated not so much on their own skills but the kind of leadership exercised at the national level.  National political leaders can enlist their support, in exchange for subsidizing their local socio-political activities, for national policy that reinforces stability, something, at least, that does not bring the nation to the brink of political crisis that winds up overriding personal trust for many voters.  On the one hand, lack of rigid ideological adherence to any “principle” by many of these politicians makes this achievable.  It does not mean it is necessarily easy:  it does require a “vision thing,” not just letting things take their “natural course” for the sake of getting along just to get along.

Even more critical is that, in order to build “politics of personalized and localized trust,” you need personalized and localized trust to begin with.  Who enjoys that sort of trust today?  Where are the communities where there are localized values and beliefs that define them?  The short answer is that there are not as many of them as one would like:  cities and suburbs hold most of the US population today and they are not exactly “communities” where the residents interact with each other all the time.  When the South began to turn Republican, the process was especially fast in the suburbs, where many of the populations were not even Southerners.  Many parts of the rural South, where strong communities built on long-term trust endured, elected politicians tended to remain Democrats of long standing, until they died out–literally.  While many of these communities and their representatives were deeply “conservative” in the usual sense, they were far more often than not willing and ready to cut deals with the Democratic Party when necessary, for the right “localized” price.  After all, they were elected on the basis of being “community” people, not ideologues.

The prospects of restoring stability to today’s politics, then, are bleaker than not.  Hillary Clinton, on surface, ought to be the most stabilizing figure in politics:  she has the support of all the right people, she is seemingly a “moderate,” and she certainly raises plenty of money from all quarters.  Yet, she is fundamentally distrusted.  She has no roots in any community.  Nobody knows where she is from.  This is not just her problem.  In 2012, Matt Taibbi had made a curious observation in an article that was otherwise about how Mitt Romney is a shady businessman:  how Romney had no “accent,” no visible trace of any community that he belonged to that showed up on his campaign trail.  This is, of course, a bit untrue:  Romney was, after all a key member of the Mormon community and that was a critical component of his support base, but not something that was sufficiently broad.  In contrast, Clinton truly has none.  (Yes, she is a woman, but then that is too broad a category to elicit real “trust.”)  Adding more money, more pork, and more “corruption” to a system that lacks an underpinning of trust will simply make the system more corrupt and even less trustworthy, not more stable or more “accountable.”

PS.  There is an interesting point raised about EU agricultural subsidies and Brexit in this blog post, in reference to this LRB article:  point #2, that handouts don’t bring gratitude.  This is, of course, why trust precedes corruption.  It is not corruption and pork that undergirded politics of the old, but the fact that politicians who are deserving of the locals’ trust were securing things from the political process on their supporters’ behalf.  Without trust, all the subsidies are just giveaways handed out in contempt, in shallow attempt to buy acquiescence.  They are accepted in as bad a taste as are given.

A History Lesson–Lepenisme and Trump.

When I saw this tweet by Chris Hayes, I was not sure if he really knew what he was talking about or not.  If the former, this is brilliant.  If the latter, this is dumber than a brick.

Gauche-Lepenisme is an important phenomenon in French politics:  many supporters of Le Pen are in fact leftists, former supporters of the French Communist Party, indeed, who got deserted by the Socialists when they moved to the center.  In 1986, Francois Mitterand ditched the long political alliance between the Socialists and Communists that was credited with the stability of French party politics during the Fifth Republic and joined with the center right party in the governing coalition.  In a sense, this was the first major overt triangulation in the leftist politics in the West and, for Mitterand and the Socialists, a wildly successful one–but also one that left many former  Communist supporters on the wayside.

For all the description that Le Pen and his movement gets for being “far right,” FN is actually very much a leftist party when it comes to economic matters.  In a political arena where rejection of neoliberal economics is regarded as taboo and the left-right politics is defined largely on social and “international” aspects (i.e. with regards the EU in French context), FN is indeed “far right,” but in fact, its politics are multidimensional by design, and the same has been true with many French voters.  It was the absorption of the ex-communist voters, mostly far left on the economic dimension, but presumably all over the place on other matters, that made FN the force it became, not necessarily its ultranationalist ideology, and this came about not because of a vacuum on the rightmost edge of the political spectrum, but the abandonment of the left for the “middle.”

I have been claiming for some time now that this was what happened in United States, at least up to a point, in 1980:  abandonment of the economic left by the allegedly “moderate” Democrats willfully ignorant of multidimensional politics generated the Reagan Democrats.  This is happening again in 2016, with Trump.  So, if the DLC was the American Mitterand, Trump is indeed American Le Pen.

Heresthetics, Taboos, and Cultures.

Bill Riker was, to the end, a huge believer in the inherent multidimensionality of politics. A key contribution of his thinking, the idea of heresthetics as means of manipulating politics is fundamentally grounded on this premise.  Essentially, if you are losing on one political dimension, you can usually change the debate to another dimension, cut up the incumbent majority coalition, and gain advantage politically.  A more formal variant of this argument is, of course, the famed instability argument from McKelvey.   The putative counter to this herestheetical argument is that agenda is usually limited by institutional design:  not everyone can propose anything they like that can upset the present status quo.  The keepers of the current institutions can, in theory, keep the interlopers and troublemakers at bay simply by not allowing them to introduce troubling proposals.  Riker didn’t buy this:  he noted that institutions are themselves mutable.  If enough people want to change them, they can.  So why not?  Why don’t people try harder to heresthetic their way into political advantage…but what doesn’t stop them when they do?

A much better answer than simple institutions was intuited at by Keith Krehbiel in a paper purportedly not related to the larger debate:  the institution of “unanimous consent agreements” in the US Senate, which, though vitally important in guiding the Senate agenda, are anything BUT unanimous in reality.  In effect, his argument is grounded on the norms:  even though the formal institutions permit even very small minorities to upset the legislative agenda if they so choose, they would rather than pick fights with so many of their colleagues for short term gains.  This subtly shifts the argument away from the particulars of formal institutions to informal “ethics” and “organizational” culture, as it argues that substantive, definable, and “real” gains in policy output are traded for something mushy and underdefined, like “getting along.”

I don’t know if Sam Popkin ever followed up on this intuition, but long ago, when I was talking to him on regular basis about ideas, he had a peculiar idea about “taboos.”  In many political debates, many potential proposals, indeed, entire dimensions along which proposals might be offered, are often ruled out by fiat as somehow being beyond the realm of “decency.”  This, of course, follows up on Krehbiels’ variation on the “informal counters” to heresthetics:  people who belong to a given “cultural” grouping do so on the implicit acceptance that certain dimensions are off limits.  But decency is itself a murky criteria, defined by the norms within a given organization or culture:  what constitutes “beyond the pale” for congressmen needs not be beyond the pale for non-politicians, and so forth.

This sets up the setting for what I think, in retrospect, as the losing politics of the Democratic Party in 1980s:  the informal taboo that governed the agenda of the Democrats placed strict limits on how far the politicians could move along the social dimension but less so on the economic.  Thus Kennedy and Carter could differ from each other seemingly on “liberal” and “conservative” dimension, but, in practice, largely on the economic dimension only.  But the voters were not part of this taboo.  The seeming “moderation” of Carter relative to Kennedy, achieved largely if not entirely on economic matters, did not impress them at the least and probably offended many of them–especially those to whom economic dimension was the decisive determinant for their support of the Democrats.  The Democratic taboo, of course, did not limit Ronald Reagan:  he could and did heresthetic his way to electoral victory.  With the Democrats hamstrung by the social taboo, he could simply deemphasize the economic issue–on which the difference between him and Carter was relatively small anyways–and capture many voters who saw the greater difference on social dimension as more relevant than the small economic one–even if they might have been, had the difference been greater, more inclined to value economic rather than the social dimension.  (Or, in other words, the elasticities matter–the preferences need not be (strictly) lexicographic the way political psychologists imagine the non-spatial politics to be.)

This goes beyond conventional electoral politics, into the realm of culture, religion, and terrorism.  While this is unlikely to have been the specific motive behind the shooting, the peculiar intersectionality of the cultural issues makes this an heresthetical event.  Western societies have increasingly made overt discussion of sexuality a taboo:  while there are many holdouts and several legal restrictions on LGBT rights remain, the prevailing attitude is increasingly that of let people do what they may.  If you will, taboos have been changing for sociocultural reasons.  This is not the case with other cultures:  in many traditional societies, homosexuality is still criminalized by death–public executions of gays still take place in several Middle Eastern countries.  Whether this is really “Islamic” is not my business:  it’s not my religion and I don’t know the topic, although I’ve come across people who have actually made Quranic argument for tolerance as well as many examples on the other side.  The bottom line, for my purposes, is that what is becoming a taboo in many Western societies is not in other cultures.  Of course, multiculturalism is another taboo in much of the modern West.  Condemning an entire civilization with billions of adherents is not something we want to do, so many liberals sidestep carefully to avoid linking the issue to religion.  Given the great deal of influence of the less tolerant (let’s say) sects in the Islamic world, this seems to be a dangerous mistake:  while “Islam” may not be easily defined as “tolerant” or not, there are indeed many highly intolerant Muslims who justify their beliefs on the basis of religious faith.  The problem is further compounded because this generalization probably would not apply to many, if most Muslims in United States, many of whom, if anything, came here because they didn’t care for all that overpious religious restrictions, but given the prevalence of the more intolerant sects, it would be equally misleading to think that just because average Muslim in United States is tolerant and peaceful, the number of the potential converts to radicalism is miniscule enough to be ignored.  What is already a complex enough statistical problem (the mean is peaceful but the variance is larger than we’d like) is subject to the additional heresthetical problem:  we have trouble even venturing into a serious talk along the “religion” dimension at all.

I don’t know if I have a good answer to address this, but it strikes me that the Orlando shooting has really placed the West in an awkward situation.