The Political Law of The Mirror

Whatever you think is about to happen in the other party is going to happen to your party first.

Democrats thought they could indulge themselves in a long primary because the Republicans looked sure to head to a contested convention with the unlikeliest of candidates leading the pack, Donald Trump. They thought Republican disunity would hand the White House to the Democrats in 2016. Instead, it is becoming increasingly likely that the opposite will happen and that the Democratic party will split into two de facto sub parties and watch Donald Trump become President, or, in what now seems the maximal scenario, Hillary wins a close election but the Dems don’t make gains in Congress worth much.

In 1992, the Republican party also seemed to be in trouble. The Democrats had a 38-year long winning streak in the House and had just scored the White House. Instead, the Republicans took control of Congress by moving to the right and becoming increasingly more hostile and whose full-court press against President Clinton surely led to the election of President Bush despite the peace and prosperity of the 90s.

This works two ways. It looked like the Republicans were immortal between 2002 and 2005. But the public finally caught up with the craziness of the Bush administration about 5 years too late to really change things and threw Congress and then the White House to the Democrats in 2006-08.

Of course how it looks isn’t necessarily born out by the data we have. Republicans seem far unhappier with things now in their party than Democrats do, and above all, Democrats still love President Obama, who has very high approval for this time in his term. We can look at that and say maybe Hillary is OK after all.

But what we know about how similar scenarios played out in the past under similar facts can’t accurately forecast as bizarre of an election year as this one, can it? Some people will not be able to stomach the idea of Donald Trump with the nuclear codes; for others, they will have had 6 months to get used to the idea.

Anger and amnesia are driving this, along with ADD. I am better off than I was 8 years ago by a mile and better than 6 years ago by a hard to measure amount. What may be hard for some people to put together is that we may not be better off than we were 10 years ago or 20.

Somehow this is generating a world where people’s long histories and records are casually discarded as irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what someone did 20 years ago. It matters what they’re saying now. It doesn’t even matter if there is no chance what is being promised can be brought about, or, if it does, it will result in a calamity that will unleash even worse anger.

It’s very tempting to let Trump try and do what he’s saying and watch him fail miserably, but in the 4 minimum years it will take to remove him, people will suffer. We can’t make gambits with this just to prove a point.

As for the rancor in the Democratic Party, it’s a depressing lesson in facing the fact that, at least at the grassroots level, “both sides do it” is true.

If Trump wins, the Bernie people will say they told us so, that Hillary was a bad candidate. If she loses, that will be almost certainly a correct claim to make, but it won’t have helped that they couldn’t put aside their feelings for her to help out, and it will certainly not prove that Sanders would have done better (the same polls that show him beating Trump, by the way, are the same ones Sanders has to shove aside to convince anyone he has had a chance in the primaries after March 15). Sanders’s label of social democracy is attractive to the left, myself included. The problem is, his implementation of it doesn’t pass even the lightest scrutiny.

But the problem is, there will be no way to prove this and I suspect that the core of Sanders supporters after a Clinton defeat will never accept the blame and will in fact feel vindicated. The other party is prepared for the Trump loss and will simply return the conservatives to power. They caught a break on this one, because usually after 3 presidency losses, a party moderates. Now they can credibly maintain it was a failure to be true conservatives that cost them, if it does.

 

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South America: 3 down, 2 to go.

Neoliberalism is a bad word in Latin America. It’s associated with arrogant yankee executives with money falling out of their pockets condescending on the place. It’s associated in many American liberals’ minds with the World Bank building leaky oil projects on the jungle land of noble savages.

A little bit of this is chauvinism in resenting anything from outside being helpful, but there is some basis in fact. But let’s look at one set of data that shows just how good the last 25 years have been in the region.

*Failed
**Stretched definition of coup; more of a constitutional crisis

Here is a list of all of the coup and coup attempts since 1991, 25 years ago. Ecuador 2010*, Honduras 2009**, Ecuador 2005, Venezuela 2002*, Ecuador 2000, Guatemala 1993*, Peru 1992***, Venezuela 1992*. That’s a total of 8 coups only 2 of which were successful or unqualified, non-hyperbolic coups. These occurred in only 5 countries, with three in Ecuador and 2 in Venezuela.

What about the 25 years prior? Panama 1990*, Argentina 1990*, Panama 1989*, Paraguay 1989, Argentina 1988* (Dec), Argentina 1988* (Jan), Argentina 1987*, Suriname 1980, Bolivia 1980, El Salvador 1979, Argentina 1976, Ecuador 1976, Uruguay 1973, Chile 1973 (Sept), Chile 1973* (June), Bolivia 1970, Bolivia 1970 (Counter), Brazil 1969, Peru 1968, Panama 1968, Argentina 1966. That’s a total of 21 14 of which were successful in 12 countries.

In other words, all three of the incidence, the success rate, and the number of countries affected has declined dramatically since the end of the Cold War and the “hegemony” of the Washington Consensus, Globalization, and Neoliberalism.

What’s so amazing about this is that the region has suffered plenty of shocks since then. Mexico’s currency imploded in 1995 as did Argentina’s in 2001. Right now, much of the region is suffering from a bad economy, as much of the world has since 2008, yet in that period the only places to suffer coups were Ecuador, which has almost no history of peaceful transitions of power, and Honduras, which is wracked by narco-gang violence. Even in Brazil, only the heated rhetoric of failed politicians is calling the instant process a coup—they’re following the constitutional procedure.

In other words, places that have suffered terrible shocks have not suffered coups and others have grown very much more stable. Even Venezuela where there are now shortages of basic supplies, medicine, and electricity is currently debating a legal procedure to remove Maduro, not a coup.

The contingent of resistance to this yanqui domination gained power in Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela (with its chief architect, Hugo Chavez) and Brazil. Using the language of socialism and anti-american nationalism, these countries had temporarily successful leaders who unsustainably took advantage of temporary conditions to do some good with respect to poverty, but in most cases virtually nothing to address the deeper issues of government. Indeed, it’s in these countries alone where we’ve seen post-cold war coups at all.

Just in the last year, the people have realized these people were clowns. In Bolivia, Evo Morales’s attempt to make himself, in effect, president for life, was rejected by voters. In Argentina, the Kirchner dynasty and its retainers were finally deposed by the kind of policies (if not necessarily the exact person) that can finally bring it into the developed world. Now, finally, the socialists of Brazil have been deposed.

To understand why what happened in Brazil is good, you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that corruption and good policies aren’t always mutually exclusive and that the reverse is true. Dilma may not have been corrupt, but her government, which had the good idea of direct transfers to the poor, did nothing to ensure those payments were sustainable. Milking a temporary bubble for a social safety net without investing in sustainable institutions is bad government no matter your corruption or purity.

That leaves Maduro and Correa in Ecuador. I think it’s only a matter of time with Maduro since he is the poster child for the failure of the so-called Bolivarian pink Latin America. Correa seems to be making hay out of the devastating earthquake that just struck Ecuador, but its doubtful he will survive alone.

Unfortunately, no sooner does this pink wave recede than one of the relatively more stable countries faces a test of its own with the potential election of Keiko Fujimori. Replacing left wing semi-feral rulers with right-wing ones won’t help.

Thomas Frank

There’s this sort of weird prairie populist sector of liberal intelligentsia that likes to get meta on liberals and wag fingers at them for culturally condescending on flyover and promising that if liberals would just get behind a kind of Henry Wallace like rural socialism the Democrats and the country would be saved.

This rings true on the surface. It’s not nice to be tribal against the flyovers. And certainly they are equally dignified in their rights as anyone else and a vote is a vote. But this all relies on a sort of “good old days” theology of the New Deal era.

It’s quite possible that there is such a deep racism embedded in these folks that they will never assent to a unity of purpose with poor minorities, but I kind of doubt that.

There are poor rural conservative folk in much of the world. Making their material situation improve may make some of them happy, but it’s unlikely that it will separate them from their traditions and morals.

And refraining from condescending towards these people makes it sound like liberals are superhumans just as much as the condescension does as if we are immune to misunderstandings of other cultures or a sense of security in our own choices and beliefs.

You can take away my liberal card, but I, for one, would gladly call a truce in the culture wars freezing the status quo if it meant that we could really finally get real wages up and do other economic equalization. But that’s not happening.

Look, I do wonder with Frank’s fellow traveller—the dude who wrote “The Smug Style”—why it is that people can get socially blackballed for asking questions about a transgendered person but businesses that pay shitty wages suffer no such consequences. Unmentioned in that article is the worrying tide of anti-science in the left as well. But this really amounts an intramural argument about priorities.

Social Justice requires suasion which makes it political, but it also makes it confrontational. It forces change and often the change side is seen as unquestioningly correct. Everything is the 60s; everything is the next civil rights movement—except it’s not: America had one original sin, slavery, and remedying its effects are unique in all American history. It is just assumed that the change side represents the right side of history. But new isn’t always better. And the self-righteous on both sides are blind to their own hypocrisies. How many liberals do you know who eat plenty of meat but not just wouldn’t attend a bullfight but think it should be banned? or who wouldn’t see how demanding radical animal rights legislation while wanting abortion to be legal doesn’t rub some people the wrong way? (For what it’s worth it was the sheer lack of hypocrisy about marriage equality that made it winning: we want everyone to have stable family units because families are good, not that we want to do as the right says and use slut pills, abortions, and debauchery to destroy the family!) My opinion on these matters is irrelevant; it’s the difficulty of the contradictions for others that requires some of this to be delivered at the point of a federal law. So, I get why maybe there’s an argument we should give each other a break here. But I don’t think that will result in the lack of need of suasion either positive or negative to bring about the kind of cultural changes suggested even if we are making real wages skyrocket.

What Frank and others are really suggesting is trying to foment some kind of realignment of the political alliances of the two parties, putting the liberal sub/urban professional classes back into the Republican party in exchange for the peasants joining up with the other underclasses. All well and good, but to what end?

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can lead flyover to economic assistance but you can’t make them like it. We should implement the social safety net anyway. Once it’s strong enough we won’t have to worry about tribal friction between coastals and flyovers.

 

How to fix the GOP

Donald Trump’s candidacy isn’t going to destroy the Republican party for several reasons. First and foremost, our first-past-the-post voting system makes it difficult to have anything other than a two party system. So even if the faces and the issue change, there will very likely be a Republican party in some form permanently. Second, the party itself is strong in the states and local government.

But the mystique of the presidency, which is much greater than its actual power, has been a difficult ask for the Republicans for a while now. Without completely omitting too many details, this is down to one simple reason: the Republican party is the white christian nationalist party. People can deny this all they want, but it’s the only unifying thread of the vast constituencies. It is this, as evidence by Trump’s nomination, even more than it is the conservative party. A conservative party never would have enacted No Child Left Behind or Medicare Part D.

I actually believe, unlike most liberals, that there is actually more or less always going to be a demand for a pro-business party of the 1% (or at least of the 5%). I actually believe that in moderation this can be a good thing—that our way of life demands a properly balanced yin and yang of capitalism and safety nets that is neither Ted Cruz nor Bernie Sanders. But, unlike most people, I simply don’t believe that the Republican party of 2016 (or really at any point since 1968) has been the party of business. Business has been one of its constituencies, but not the only one.

I actually also believe, unlikely most liberals, that we could be less punitive with respect to religion—and I think most liberals’ hatred of religion mirrors the intolerance they claim to deplore. This doesn’t mean agreeing with their bizarre logic about “religious freedom” including the right to force your beliefs on others.

I actually also strongly believe, like most mainstream Democrats, that the world is not ready for a major withdraw of the American presence across the globe. In 2016, even the stability of Europe is in doubt between terrorism, refugees, and economic crises—not to mention separatism and the Ukraine crisis. If Europe can’t even seem to manage alone, how do we expect the more troubled regions of the world to do so? This doesn’t meant we need to keep repeating the mistakes of Iraq and Vietnam, but it does mean that there’s no going back to 1916.

So there is a market there for the supposed strengths of the Republican party. But what keeps them from it? Their anti-identity politics. As much as I dislike the identity McCarthyism of the left, especially in its current “intersectionalist” form, it’s at least preferable to making the situation worse.

But this is what will be the hardest for them to let go of. It may not be possible. For whatever else Trump stands for, he stands for being against this. Being against accommodating anyone with our choice of words, or any of our practices for that matter. The Mexicans are the enemy; build the wall. The blacks are killing police; police lives matter (ha! on you). Et cetera.

People, especially young people, seem to see no middle ground between these poles. You are either a racist or a social justice warrior. The irony is, we are just months away from one of the most rapid and politically successful liberation movements in history: that of gay rights. The reaction of the left is to immediately push this to include new genders and sexualities that break the logic of fairness behind the gay rights movement. The reaction of the right? The aforementioned “religious freedom” ruse. At least the left is trying to consider the underdog.

On all of these issues, the group that strikes the right balance (to me) between these issues is actually the mainstream of the Democratic party as represented by Barack Obama. But it appears that there is a pull to the left that may manifest itself even more aggressively in the next few years.

But assuming they want to be a national party again, the Republicans need to moderate their relations with minorities. This is hard because it actually means listening to their issues even when they demand exceptions to your ideology. (For example, as Bernie Sanders learned, class before race doesn’t appeal to minorities.) And in doing so, you’ll find that they will have to moderate their extreme pro-market views, moderate their christian triumphalism, and their hawkishness will need to be founded on security concerns rather than nationalism or hatred of the enemy, at least to a greater extent.

This is necessary for any party that wants to win nationally simply on the basis of demographics. Before long, whites will be a bare majority or even just a plurality, and assuming there are even a few white Democrats left, this dooms the Republicans. Their only hope is to find a way to appeal to the minorities on their other issues by not ruling themselves out on other issues.

Only a Republican presidential candidate with this goal could change the whole party, the way Reagan and Goldwater remade it the last time, but local candidates could give it a test run in blue states. They might be ready for this in 2020 if everything unfolds as we think.