Saturday, February 27, 2010

Team Sports in the Winter of Our Discontent

I sometimes use a pretty simple analytical model to sort out the dynamics of American politics, beginning with the observation that politics is a team sport. In the U.S. two-party system, it is a team sport played by three teams, one of which doesn't know that it is a team or that it is playing.

There's the Republicans on the Right, the Democrats on the Left, and then there are various folks, including most professional journalists, who identify as political "independents" or non-partisans. None of these groups is homogenous, of course; that's what it means to be "a team". They are coalitions, which act in a semi-coordinated way in the competition to acquire and exercise political power.

Politics, particularly Party politics, in the U.S., through most of American history, has tended to be much more complicated that it currently is, even though the two-party paradigm has usually been sustained successfully, even in times of great stress, like the Civil War. Even scholars of the second two-party system, 1824-1856, when the Whigs contended against the Jacksonian Democrats, struggle to explain the social identity differences between the Parties, or why a particular person was a Democrat or a Whig. Strong political movements or causes, like anti-slavery, or temperance, or women's suffrage, tended to develop obliquely to the Parties. In the 1850s, anti-immigrant sentiment played a part in destroying the Whigs and building the Republican Party; in the 1880s and 1890s, populism divided the Democrats; in the early 20th century, Progressivism affected both Parties. Religion and regional identities and ethnicity also played a large part. Virginia and Massachusetts dominated the country's politics, beginning with the independence movement; in the late 19th and early 20th century, Ohio seemed to dominate the affairs of the Republican Party, while the Solid South of agrarian white supremacist Southerners came to anchor the politics of a Democratic Party that was turning to urban constituencies in the North.

Since the Democrats became the unlikely instrument for finally ending segregation and legalized racial discrimination in the 1960s, the presumptive loyalty of white Southerners to the Democratic Party has been eroding. And, with the decline in labor unions, the Democratic Party's base among the working classes has also declined. The relatively poor are still more likely to vote Democratic, than Republican, and white males are more likely to vote Republican, but these differences reflect primarily differences in worldview and economic circumstances. In contrast to the past, Party identification has lost its complicated, orthogonal character, and become almost entirely a matter of political attitudes and worldview -- "ideology" in a fairly weak sense. All Republicans are conservative; all Democrats are progressives or liberals. Almost every Republican in the Senate or House is more conservative than almost every Democrat.

If you like quantitative data, there are some folks, who've done some number crunching on Congressional voting, and it is quite revealing

This political polarization is related in a variety of complex ways to both a relative decline in the salience of issues of race and ethnicity, and a rise in economic inequality.

Not to belabor the point, American politics is increasingly dominated by the agenda of the very wealthy and of the social and economic class, which runs large American business corporations. Other organizations, which might represent broader constituencies, like labor unions and professional organizations, as well as fraternal, ethnic and religious organizations, have declined in sometimes absolute, but always relative power, in comparison to large business corporations.

The Corporate Executive Class has become the sole and dominating political center of gravity in the Land, around which all three political Parties -- the two Political Parties, plus the "independents" -- revolve. I am not saying that either the Republicans or the Democrats are some kind of false front for Corporate interests, or that the relationship of either Party's politicians or voters to Corporate money and power is simple or uniform, nor that the Non-Party's relationship to Corporate money and power is simple, either. I propose to use the simple, three-Party scheme of analysis to identify some of the complexity and dynamics.

It is a discouraging analysis, because to look honestly at the dynamics of American politics is to realize that the Republicans, the Democrats, the Independent Voters and the Mainstream (non-partisan) Media are all manipulated instruments, if not actual creatures, of Corporate Business Power. I intend to avoid too much passionate ranting, but I'm deeply dissatisfied with this state of affairs, and the self-destructive policy course it seems to condemn the country to follow.

The uni-dimensional continuum of American politics has put the vast majority of those inclined toward an authoritarian cluster of political attitudes -- those to whom so-called populist appeals are traditionally made in American politics -- into the Republican Party. That, by itself, is an unusual state of affairs. In most eras, the cross-cutting of regional interests and ethnic identifications has tended to divide the authoritarians between the Parties. It has changed the character and style of the Republican Party in ways that make the Republican Party less attractive, even to many well-educated, secular conservatives. The increasingly authoritarian character of the Republican Party, as a Party of the Right, has always undermined its competence in governance, which has further alienated some of its Corporate Executive supporters. The Obama coalition and strategy in 2008, revolved around welcoming into the Democratic coalition, a small slice of conservative voters and elite leadership, increasingly alienated by the Republican Party, and a big slice of Corporate financial support. The demonstrated incompetence of the Bush Administration was an object lesson, as well as a means to various ends.

"The demonstrated incompetence of the Bush Administration was an object lesson, as well as a means to various ends." I quote myself, knowing that this is a curious proposition. Remember though, that I am writing about complex, mass behavior. Politics is a team sport. There's a division of labor, a division of intentions and interests and roles, leadership and followership, glory and spoils. Division is what it is all about, and just enough unity to get to 50.1%.

When I started this blog, it was because in the wake of Bush's election in 2004, I felt fairly certain that the country was headed toward a crack-up, a confluence of unfortunate events following in train from Bush's unwise policy-making, which would create some kind of political "perfect storm" that would precipitate a political realignment and restructuring.

The "storm" came in the rise of the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, but the reforms of the political economy I looked for, have been stifled. Few of the useful lessons, I hoped the American body politic might draw from its experience with George W. Bush, appear to have been learned. Far from overthrowing the regime constructed by George W. Bush, the Obama Administration has been intent on confirming and reinforcing it, with just a thin veneer of enhanced competence and a more progressive manipulation of symbols.

Adding a small slice of conservatives to the Democratic coalition, put the Democrats into power, but, it made the Democratic Party slightly more conservative, and in the coalition of moderate conservatives with progressives, which makes up the core of the Democratic Party, the conservatives have demanded all the power to govern. The result has been a continuation of conservative government, under the aegis of the progressive Party, effectively removing all means for progressive or liberal opposition to governance on conservative and neo-liberal principles.

The liberals and progressives are not able to introduce liberal or progressive policy, but they are being blamed for the failures and shortcomings of continuing neo-liberal, conservative policy.

In the meantime, the increasingly authoritarian Conservative Party -- the Republicans -- have adopted an obstructionist attitude, and await the swinging of the proverbial political pendulum from the failed Party -- now the Democrats -- back to the Republicans. That Republicans are obstructing policy ideas that they actually favor is an irony noted by a few observers, while progressive Democrats are demoralized by their own impotence -- co-opted into desperately supporting an agenda of economic policies that they would ordinarily oppose, adamantly.

In this strange dynamic of the powerlessness of the supporters of the Party in Power, the Non-Party third Party -- the "independents" and their "leadership" (journalists and journalist-pundits) -- have played a powerful and necessary role, in pushing narrative analysis and description that tends to narrow the agenda and to confirm the powerlessness of the leading politicians in the Democratic Party. More about this in a subsequent post (I hope).

Friday, February 26, 2010


DougJ at Balloon Juice:
"Apparently, Bill Frist and Mark Halperin are on Charlie Rose discussing today’s summit right now. (The good news is that Ezra Klein is on too.) I’d watch but I have no desire to take my own life this evening.

There are a lot of people out there who believe that our sorry state of affairs is caused by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and, if they’re really deluded, they’ll add “and on the left, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann”. I know plenty of people who say things like this.

The truth is, it’s more the fault of Charlie Rose and Tom Friedman and David Brooks. Glenn Beck didn’t get us into Iraq."

I watched a bit of it. I saw Charlie Rose and Mark Halperin stage a masterful dialogue, supposedly analyzing the politics, which confirmed Republican talking points. Rose managed the back-and-forth among the panel, so there was no contradiction of what they said. Ezra Klein was brought in next on a completely different point, not that the career-minded Washington Post Online columnist seemed inclined to oppose Rose and Halperin on whether Obama's proposal was too far left, or too ambitious, etc.

It just left me despairing for my country. And, DougJ is right: this, not the clowning of Beck, is what got us into Iraq. Rose is absolutely relentless in defining "sensible" centrism in ways that make not just the Left, but rationality and facts and intelligence disappear. Critical reason is simply excluded. And, the result is quiet, and boring and rambling, and, ultimately, monstrous.

Monday, February 22, 2010

What we wish to believe . . .

Leonard Pitts Jr., Miami Herald columnist:
"To listen to talk radio, to watch TV pundits, to read a newspaper's online message board, is to realize that increasingly, we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth. We admit no ideas that do not confirm us, hear no voices that do not echo us, sift out all information that does not validate what we wish to believe.

I submit that any people thus handicapped sow the seeds of their own decline; they respond to the world as they wish it were rather to the world as it is. . . .

But objective reality does not change because you refuse to accept it. The fact that you refuse to acknowledge a wall does not change the fact that it's a wall.

And you shouldn't have to hit it to find that out."

(Thanks to Steve Benen at Washington Monthly for the pointer.)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Lean Years

I've noticed over the last couple of weeks a growing crescendo of propaganda, in favor of the idea that most Americans must accept much reduced income and wealth.

Thomas Friedman - proclaims: "Welcome to the lean years."

Thomas Friedman is a bad writer, a dull fellow and a moral pygmy, so I won't quote more than that. But, he's popular and well-connected -- tuned into the zeitgeist, you might say, if you didn't believe that he's participating in a well-coordinated propaganda campaign.

atrios of Eschaton translates:
"he of course means things will only get worse for the proles, that this is inevitable and there's nothing elites can do about it, and we'd all better suck it up and learn to be polite to our wealthy overlords."

Dean Baker, an actual economist refutes him:
"There are no serious forecasts that do not project that productivity will continue to grow for the indefinite future, and many project that productivity will grow at a more rapid pace than it did in the years from 1973-1995. This means that there is no reason, except incompetent economic management and/or the continuing upward redistribution of income, why the vast majority of the population should not experience improvements in living standards."

And, the New York Times reports:
The New Poor - Despite Signs of Recovery, Long-Term Unemployment Rises: "Millions of Unemployed Face Years Without Jobs"

The masters of large corporations and the very, very wealthy take a larger share of the national income and pay less and less in taxes, while sponsoring Republicans and centrist Democrats in obstructing any amelioration. But, outside the Left Blogosphere, you will never hear a word of truth about that.

Monday, February 15, 2010

the crisis in governance

digby at Hullabaloo quotes Paul Volcker: "the crisis I most worry about is the crisis in governance"

digby's typically elegant summary:
"one party is politically feckless and ineffectual and the other is politically reckless and radical and that's causing gridlock and frustration. . . . There are many problems with governance right now. . . . inability to . . . reform is not caused by the differences between the two parties, but rather their similarities. That's a much, much bigger problem."
I think she meant to reference the complementarity of the two Parties, rather than their similarity. But, yes, it is a much bigger problem.
Much bigger.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Fiscal Responsibility

I'm duplicating a post by digby at Hullabaloo

She points to this post by Dean Baker:
"Next week dozens of honchos around Washington are going to be gathering to try to devise ways to ensure that ordinary working people pay for their incompetent management of the economy. This effort will pass under the guise of 'fiscal responsibility.'

The basic story of course is quite simple. Geniuses like Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan and the rest of the country's top economists and policymakers somehow either could not see an $8 trillion housing bubble or just thought it was cute.

When it collapsed and brought down the economy, as every competent economist knew it would, it also created a serious budget problem. Now, these elites are convening special sessions devoted to fiscal responsibility in which they will devise schemes to take away the Social Security benefits that workers have already paid for and to cut Medicare. Invariably they will praise themselves for having the courage to take part in these Wall Street funded sessions to plot ways to take money from ordinary workers. And, they wonder why people hate Washington."

digby adds her own comment: "And these people will also very likely succeed in blaming 'government spending' for the loss of the citizens' future security. But then nobody's telling them otherwise and the leaders in both the private and public sectors who created the mess are being well rewarded. What else are they to think?"

And, I have nothing to add.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

What do you mean, "failure"?

Economist Michael Hudson:
"What do you mean “failure”? Your perspective is from the bottom looking up. But the financial model has been a great success from the vantage point of the top of the economic pyramid looking down. The economy has polarized to the point where the wealthiest 10 percent now own 85 percent of the nation’s wealth. Never before have the bottom 90 percent been so highly indebted, so dependent on the wealthy. From their point of view, their power has exceeded that of any time in which economic statistics have been kept.

You have to realize that what they’re trying to do is to roll back the Enlightenment, roll back the moral philosophy and social values of classical political economy and its culmination in Progressive Era legislation, as well as the New Deal institutions. They’re not trying to make the economy more equal, and they’re not trying to share power. Their greed is (as Aristotle noted) infinite. So what you find to be a violation of traditional values is a re-assertion of pre-industrial, feudal values. The economy is being set back on the road to debt peonage. The Road to Serfdom is not government sponsorship of economic progress and rising living standards, it’s the dismantling of government, the dissolution of regulatory agencies, to create a new feudal-type elite."

Friday, February 5, 2010

All debt is now bad

Michael Turner, commenting on a Krugman piece at Economist's View has an interesting insight:
Americans have just had a near-Depression experience, after a financial-system 9/11. The housing bubble wasn't an equity-financed boom, but a debt-financed boom, and that was Wall Street's source of cash as well. And it's debt that Americans have harrowing personal experience with. All debt is now bad. Including government debt that might in actuality save their asses.

The narrative that attaches to political and economic events is more important to the politics than the nature of the events. I suppose one could venture that the political nature of an event is determined by the narrative, and not the inherent particulars of the event, itself.

Propaganda is effective, without being informative or educational. How many ads has an American heard for analgesic pain relievers, like aspirin and Tylenol and Advil, without ever learning the differences?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Teens think blogging is about as cool as Rick Astley hits: "Blogging is falling out of favor among the young'uns these days as they move to quicker-moving social networking sites. At the same time, older adults are getting into blogging and teens still aren't hot on Twitter"

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

If you think Obama is an extremist . . .

"If you think Obama is an extremist, . . ."

Then, you've taken leave of consensus reality, and words cease to have accepted meanings, and everything you say is likely to seem crazy.

This last is the most troubling thing -- not that people disagree, but that they adopt conventional modes of expression that make it almost impossible to even discuss those disagreements.

You don't have to agree with or support Obama's agenda, but if you refuse to characterize that agenda in terms of common reference and meaning, than the discourse breaks down. Your concerns cannot be heard or respected, in the democratic process.

That's the essence of the Party of No: the insistence on a separate reality, a separate dictionary, and a bizarro-world narrative.

Bizarro-world narrative analysis might be good stagecraft at times, but it completely obstructs democratic dialogue, and erodes the power to reason together or to respect disagreement.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Paul Krugman: "What we’re witnessing is an awesome national failure."

A Winning Platform

The Party Of “Look, You Know, I Was, Uh, Yeah” - Paul Krugman Blog -
"right now the GOP literally has no ideas about how the nation should actually be governed.

And the scary thing is that lack of ideas seems to be a winning platform."