Monday, July 27, 2015

Trump, Lessig, and the Problems of the Political System

There's been a lot of attention to Donald Trump lately, rather more than I think is deserved.  (The Huffington Post had it right putting him in the entertainment section.)   Still, I think the Trump Phenomenon, if not the person, are worthy of some note.

People like Trump tend to attract attention when there is a void in the political system.  If you look at the national debate right now, it is focused on issues-the Confederate Flag, gay and transgender rights, Iran--that are pretty far removed from the average person's concerns.   The mainstream presidential candidates are either relatives of former presidents (Clinton, Bush) or people, including Sanders and nearly all the Republicans, who strike most people as second tier.   So there is an opening for someone who, however crudely, expresses many people's anxieties with their own future and that of the political system.

The typical response of those dissatisfied with the political system is to talk about campaign finance (Lawrence Lessig is a prime example.)  But financing is only one small part of it.   A more meaningful reform would have to address the entire way that we elect presidents, and everyone else, from geographic districts to the electoral college to everything else in between.  I'll be addressing these issues in a subsequent post.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

are conservatives really on the defensive?

There's a lot of talk now about a liberal moment and conservatives being on the run.   The gay marriage ruling, health care, and the taking down of (some) Confederate flags are cited as evidence.  One was has written of "peak leftism" as a cultural phenomenon.

I'm less convinced.   Consider a few facts:

1.  Most of these "liberal" decisions are in fact being made by conservatives.   The swing votes on the Supreme Court are Roberts and Kennedy--hardly liberals by any definition.   The Confederate flag thing was started by two Republican governors.   If it's such a liberal moment, why are conservatives making the decisions?

2.  You have to distinguish conservative from populist causes.   There's nothing inherently conservative, certainly not Republican, about the Confederate flag.   Gay marriage is a hybrid cause: the gay part progressive, the marriage part traditional.    Even Obamacare was orginally a Republican proposal.   To a large extent, these issues releate to generational changes and/or changed situations rather than underlying philosophical issues.

3.  To the extent that these issues affect national politics, they probably help Republicans.   Instead of people screaming that they lost their insurance or can't get married, there will now be people screaming that their premiums are going up or their church is being picked on.   People in 1964-65 thought there would be a permanent Democratic majority.   It didn't turn out that way.

What I do think is happening is that a certain historical phase--what we might call the southernization or the wallaceization of the national Republican Party--has more or less run it course.   This phase was characterized by the GOP becoming, rather than a genuinely conservative party, something more akin to right-wing populists.    At a recent Republican event, I was depressed to hear speakers rattling off a list of issues--taxes, ISIS, cultural changes--as if they were running against Jimmy Carter, or at very best Al Gore.

The flip side is that a Republican who can distance themselves from the tone of cultural resentment, focusing on economic growth and exhibiting a mixture of personal conservatism but tolerance for cultural diversity, has a good chance of breaking this mold.   This is particularly true if they are running against someone, like Hillary Clinton, whose enthusiasm for recent changes is pretty clearly of the convenient variety.   President Rubio, anyone?

Friday, June 19, 2015

. . . and a word on reparations

I've gotten interested in the issue of reparations to African-Americans and other minority groups.   No, not just because I like quixotic causes, but because of the parallel to Holocaust Reparations on which I've previously written.   My recent trip to Russia, which talked briefly about reparations to victims of the purges, famines, etc. but then retreated, also plays a role.

The logic of reparations is more convincing than one might think.  It's pretty clear that black people had their labor and sometimes their lives taken without compensation under slavery and, to a degree, the later Jim Crow laws.   Some have suggested that today's "mass incarceration" is a continuation of this process, although I don't know if anyone's suggested reparations for that.   There are a host of technical questions (who gets paid, how much, etc.) but that's always the case.

The bigger problem is the perverse nature of reparations.  Reparations tend to get paid when either i. the country making the payments was defeated in war (Germany) or ii. circumstances have changed so dramatically than no one seriously defends the original outrage (Japanese-American internment).   It also helps if iii. the offense complained of has been over for a long time and has little chance of being renewed.   When these circumstances don't apply, reparations are much less likely.   To put it more cynically, a large-scale, continuing abuse is often a weaker candidate for reparations than one in the past, because the payments would be larger and the logic reparations would require deeper, ongoing changes in the society in question.

Given this difficulty, the model of transitional or "restorative" justice has considerable appeal.   Instead of punishing transgressors and paying monetary compensation, this model emphasizes the gathering of historical facts and the institution of steps that prevent a recurrence of the original abuse in the future.   The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an example of this process.   The Memorial organization in Russia, now under severe pressure from the Government, has sought a similar approach.   The two approaches are not mutually exclusive--South Africa is paying a symbolic amount to some victims of apartheid--but the emphasis is different.

In any event, it's an interesting and provocative issue, and one that makes you rethink the common assumption that America is "better" or "more moral" than other countries.   (Russia used to have more people in prison than we do, but we're way ahead now.)   I'll be thinking and writing more about it in the coming months.

republican candidates forum . . .

The Northeast Republican Leadership Forum is in town, so I stopped in for a few hours yesterday, thereby spending 50-plus dollars and missing all the major candidates.   (We're going to New York later this afternoon, and I'm not spending $35 on Rick Santorum.)   It was an interesting experience but also a little bit frustrating.

The interesting part is that Republicans are, well, very polite and generally full of sunshine as we reach the twilight of the Obama years.   Everything was in place and they even had a fee structure ($50 for Scott Walker or Chris Christie, $35 for Santorum, George Pataki and Lindsey Graham free) that pretty well reflects the market.  Pataki gave a better speech than I expected, talking about things like religion, military service, and other forms of sacrifice, although why that would make him a good President I have no idea.

The down side is that it's basically the same crowd that's attended these events for the last 20 years.   Almost everybody is white and there aren't many young people except the staff.   It looks like the same people who go to hockey games, which I suppose it more or less is.

The arguments are a little stale too.   Basically a lot of people are still running against Jimmy Carter.   We'll cut your taxes, we'll beat up on (ISIS/Saddam Hussein/The Soviet Union), we'll uphold traditional values.    It was a great message in 1978, but a lot of voters weren't born then.

In fairness, this is a summer gathering of people with nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon.   This morning I watched videos of Marco Rubio and Scott Walker and they're rather more in touch with the times, or at least a slice of them.  Rubio in particular as a compelling life story if he can resist the tendency to be a bit goofy.   I suspect that either he or Walker would have more appeal to young voters than many people imagine.

But I think the party as a whole needs to get a little more culturally in touch if it is to win on more than a cyclical, reactive basis.    Small towns, churches, and the military are all important but most people live in cities and haven't served in the army.   It's less a question of the message than getting people to listen to you in the first place.    A Republican espresso bar, anyone?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

wasn't X supposed to be behind us?

Some interesting columns have appeared lately asking why there's so much racial unrest at a time that we have a Black (or in any event, mixed-race) President and more interracial contact than ever.  Wasn't this supposed to be behind us?   Maybe not.

There's a theory that there is sometimes a "last gasp" of racism at the very point when it seems to have disappeared.   The theory is that people see the last vestiges of their racial/cultural identity disappearing and are moved to act in the opposite direction.   The theory--really a hypothesis, since it's more or less impossible to test--is sometimes used to explain the Jewish Holocaust in Europe, which began in a country (Germany) that had a relatively high degree of racial mixing.

It's interesting, although not especially heartening, to think of the implications of this theory for the gay community.   Many people are saying that, if the Supreme Court supports same-sex marriage, the issue will be "over" for the foreseeable future.   People said the same thing about race in 1964/65, and antisemitism a generation earlier.   But these things are rarely "over."   Groups that win A ask for B, while majorities frequently find backup strategies to use against assertive minorities.    Not a terribly cheerful view, I realize, but I think a pragmatic one.  

In the Passover Seder, it says that you have to relive the Exodus every year, the implication being that otherwise it will be reversed.     I think something like this applies to all social changes.   It's an easy lesson to forget, but one history conspires to remind us of.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The South Carolina Case

I don't know how the case will come out, although I suspect it will be harder to convict the cop of anything beyond manslaughter or the S.C. equivalent.   He looks to me like someone who panicked rather than someone really evil.  Then again, the guy is still dead.

I do find some of the outrage from white liberals hypocritical.   People have been cheering the
"reduced crime rate" and the "improved policing" that caused it for at least two decades.  They knew, or should have known, what it involved: more or less systematic intimidation of population groups who were perceived, rightly or wrongly, as potential criminals.   It's like the North, which made a fortune from the slave trade, turning around and saying, "the slaves in the South were mistreated?   We had absolutely no idea."

Without this debate, this kind of thing will keep happening, prosecuting the individual cops is unavoidable but it won't change the result.

she's in . . .

I found the Clinton announcement, or what I saw of it, to be slick, well-presented,   . . . and almost wholly insincere.  I think she's basically trying to be a softer version of Elizabeth Warren: "the deck is stacked against you, I'll help you compete," that sort of thing.   Where were they for the last 20 years while the deck allegedly was stacked in this way?

I still think the Democratic primaries will be more interesting than people think.   People need a story, and a coronation isn't a story.   Look for someone--O'Malley, Webb, Warren as a write-in, whoever--to be the next story and see what happens.