Once in a while, something comes along to knock us out of our course, drives us to take a look at things from a perspective long discarded, and calls upon us to reassess. Shocks that set us not only back but prompt the kind of deep re-evaluations we sometimes believe we do all the time. It’s fair to say one such shock is this election just past, which many of us, on both sides of the political divide, are puzzling over, conservatives no less than liberals.
Coming upon the heels of that we may be fortunate to find a book or two, hear a lecture, find revelation in an analysis that brings us up short and calls into question everything we took for granted for, well, decades.
Thomas Frank, known for his first book, What‘s the Matter With Kansas?, most recently published such an examination—Listen, Liberal is as complete an indictment of the Democratic Party and the assumptions of liberalism as I have seen in one place in many years. What is particularly troubling for me—and perhaps for many like me—is that all the points he raises are based on history which I knew, events that I remember, paths taken that at the time seemed inevitable, but which I never interpreted this way. I indulged a fairly banal process of explaining it to myself so that all these things became acceptable, even normal, in a way that now, looking at the shambles of where I always thought we were headed, I find bewildering. None of us, ever, are free of self-deception, especially in the face of specific alternatives we find unacceptable at the time.
Then Frederick Dutton, Democratic Party power broker, went farther: he identified workers, the core of the New Deal coalition, as “the principle group arrayed against the forces of change.” They were actually, to a certain degree, the enemy. Dutton acknowledged that it was strange to contemplate such a reversal of the moral alignment that had put his own party into power, but you couldn’t argue with history. “In the 1930s,the blue collar group was in the forefront,” Dutton recalled. “Now it is the white-collar sector.” Specifically: “the college-educated group.” That was who mattered in the future-altering present of 1971.
This was in the aftermath of the 1968 debacle of Democratic failure which put Richard Nixon in office and announced the coming Age of Plutocracy which has come upon us with the inevitability of an ice age glacier. The “student” movements of the Sixties aligned with the perceived betrayal of the Johnson Administration over Vietnam and the chasm of perception between generations that placed the youth movements on the opposing side against their traditionalist parents’ generation. The Republicans capitalized on the Old Guard vote in the wake of Johnson’s resignation and the year of political chaos that was 1968. The anger exploded in Chicago and the Democratic Party leadership saw the future as one in which the educated class would be the group to court.
Yet somehow this was seen as something that had to be done at the expense of labor, which was suddenly perceived as hopelessly archaic, a drag on change. Even though Labor, as an organized body politic, was still solidly Democratic, they were seen as a burden. Of course, they were also seen as a reliable source of votes. They were, in short, taken for granted.
This is the story Frank narrates in his new book and it is a hard thing to realize how correct he is. That basically the Democratic Party—and by extension America itself—left Labor in the ditch and committed itself to fostering a class of voters who are in many ways indistinguishable from the so-called upper 10%, if not in money then in aspirations. And it is in those aspirations that the tale is told most painfully, because we have witnessed the betrayal even of them, despite the fact that they are exactly who the Future was supposed to be about.
I have a slightly different take on the path Mr. Frank describes. I remember all that with a different emphasis.
My parents were born during the Great Depression. One thing that bound many of them together, ideologically, was a conviction that their children and grandchildren would not have to suffer through what they did. They were solidly blue collar people. College was a fantasy for most and I think it was understood that the upper reaches of white collar sinecure would always be for the few. But they would try. If at all possible, they would get their kids into college. I remember my father telling that he wanted me to be able to make a living without having to cut my fingers. Also, the assumption for many was that white collar was more secure, despite the realities at the time that union jobs represented the better security.
They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, but it didn’t turn out the way they hoped, for many reasons.
The other thing was the Space Race.
I know, this seems an unlikely cause of our present calamities, but consider—with Sputnik, the United States entered into a technology showdown of unprecedented configuration. We were suddenly in a do-or-die competition over knowledge-based innovation. This was a Cold War initiative that got sold to the public in the guise of exploration—which it was, in many of its parts—so we could count political coup and perfect missile technology along the way. Industry had to be conjoined with science and for the coming Age of Space we needed scientists and engineers—not Teamsters or Auto Workers. The National Science Foundation made a big push to transform education to meet the coming requirements. Education had to be remade.
The experiment turned out to be a disaster in slow motion. In spite of the success of the space program, teachers found themselves at odds with the new requirements, students were being short-changed in basics, the ability of the massive edifice of public education to turn on a dime and create the Future turned out to be a pie-in-the-sky wish. And of course in the midst of all this came the convulsions of the Sixties, by the end of which even the basic assumptions of education were called into question, along with all the confidence in government that had existed since FDR. Unions were seen more and more as stodgy repositories of old school billy-club thinking (not without some justification—but there’s the rub, of course: all of this transpired with “some” justification), more in the way than not.
(My father was screwed over by his union over technological innovation. This was a real thing. Many unions sensed the coming problem all this innovation was bringing, because the basic question that was asked last if at all was “What about the displaced workers?”)
We were about to Build The Future. As of 1969 we were on the Moon, we were going to the other planets, space stations would soon be orbiting the planet, the future the future the Future!
And it didn’t happen.
Instead we were made ripe for a political realignment that sidelined Labor in the name of that Future which was then turned into a source of votes to undo the New Deal. Instead of going to Mars, we got the Shuttle; instead of universal healthcare, we got the benefits of skyrocketing medical technology along with skyrocketing costs the government refused to take on, leaving more and more people unable to pay for what should have been medical care the envy of the world; instead of full employment, we got a war on the poor and demands for “welfare reform” that created a permanent underclass of poor by which management threatens workers with banishment if they unionize or demand a fair share of the burgeoning wealth owned by fewer and fewer.
All aided and abetted by a Democratic Party that decided its political fortunes were best cast with those people who didn’t want to cut their fingers to make a living.
Frank calls it the Professional Class. These are the people who don’t join unions because they more or less see themselves as independent contractors, quasi-libertarians, loners, wannabe entrepreneurs. Without benefit of the formal structure, they also make up one of the strongest unions in history because they keep nonmembers out more effectively than any organized union ever did. They do it by social category, not by skill set or paid dues. Although if one wished to see it this way, college degrees represent paid dues of an extortionate level. They like to believe they represent a merit-based social hierarchy, but in fact out-of-the-box skills trouble if not frighten them. The idea that someone may be able to “do what they do” and in some cases do it better without benefit of matriculation through the unofficial union membership program they prefer is inconceivable and anyone who comes along to show that this is an error on their part is not welcomed for his or her abilities but shut out because they have rough table manners.
And just as the base of the GOP seems unable to see how their party is not doing well by them, these shiny professionals are dismayed by their party’s inability to challenge the GOP on the state and congressional level because the Democratic Party is serving a class that is simply in most ways too like Republicans to draw a base of natural allies, namely Labor.
What should be a merit-based society has become what might be called a Credentialist Society, which is not the same thing, though in many respects the two resemble each other. Bernie Sanders’ call for free college is a blunt attack on the chokehold universities have on who is or is not to be allowed to participate. The price of that union card has grown all out of proportion to the benefits it confers on the membership.
There’s nothing anti-American about this, though. While we boast of our founding as a nation of immigrants and a society based not on pedigree but ability, the fact remains that we have a history of exclusion, attempts to keep certain people out. We are functional snobs. Real equality scares us, because individually we fear we won’t measure up on a level playing field. Some of us, anyway. And both parties have played on that fear to achieve essentially the same result. While the Republicans are an Us vs. Them party for the rich, the Democratic Party has become an Us vs. Them party representing those who want to be the rich—and feel like they have a shot at it if they can just find a way to free themselves of their declassé roots. Consequently, most of us have been left in the lurch.
A friend of mine who is a thoughtful conservative once told me, when I asked, that one of things about the Democratic Party that troubled him most was its racism. I thought that was odd, since in recent years it was fairly obvious that most of the racists seem to adhere to the Republicans. I’ve since rethought that. Not that I believe the racism of the GOP is any less real, but the Democratic Party exhibits a kind of circumstantial racism, a racism by default because the economy has been engineered in such a way to assign poverty along broad racial lines, casting such people into labor pools that suffer the most when the jobs are lost and technology displaces them and the housing prices of the upwardly aspirant make it impossible for them to live in desirable neighborhoods. The Democratic Party would rather fob them off with entitlements than do anything to address the economic situation that makes them, essentially, the Left Behinds. The GOP at least is more honest in saying they aren’t interested in those people at all, if not in word then deed.
But going back to Thomas Frank’s argument, the Professional Class is where we all wanted to be. And we didn’t want to be unionized because unions are drags on upward mobility—or so we believed. We collaborated in the current situation by failing to understand our own preferences—our own prejudices.
Which has brought us to our current situation.
There is nothing natural about the the 1%. There is everything natural about their success. Why? Because that’s who we wanted to be. Many of us. And we went along with changes in our political reality because we were told that the Future was going to come about by virtue of innovation and technology and the concomitant methodologies of investment portfolios and fey capital. We were played—by both parties in their own way, yes, but also by our own conceits.
There are a number of quibbles I have with Mr. Frank’s narrative—those technological innovations are not phantoms and are having very, very real effects on they way work is done. The reality we have now is that we simply do not need as many people to make all the things we need to have made. When Obama talked about “shovel ready” programs, the reality he evoked no longer pertained. When Roosevelt did that, building a highway could employ ten or twenty thousand men. Today a hundred people can built that same road. What we have failed to realize is that while the labor requirements of the mid-20th Century no longer pertain, neither should the economic structures of the 19th Century, which is what we have. Just because a business owner can do the same work with less than half the workforce previously employed doesn’t automatically mean said owner gets all that money personally. “Share in the wealth” used to mean one thing by participation in its creation, but the human component in that creation has changed and now it means something else.
In any event, I recommend Thomas Frank’s new book. Argue with it, by all means, but if nothing else it should dislodge preconceptions and open us to the possibility of redoing our political expectations.
In response to the question of why the election went the way it did, one of the reasons given was Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” comment. That hurt her, they say. It turned people off.
Really? Which people? People so close to not voting for her that, once in the voting booth, remembering that phrase over and above everything else drove them to pick Stein instead? Or people who were already committed to not voting for her? Or perhaps people who were already disinclined to go to the polls anyway—because they had something more important to do than participate in deciding the direction of the country for the next four years—that maybe, had she not said that they might have decided on that day to go vote anyway.
Because I doubt seriously it hurt her among those who had already decided to vote for her, especially since, whether they might wish to admit it or not, they actually agreed with that assessment.
Because really those who were never going to vote for her under any circumstances would likely not have been affected positively or negatively by that remark. They already didn’t like her. Being nice to them would have gained her nothing, because they would not have either believed her or recognized the concession. Not saying something about them would have had zero persuasive impact.
So exactly who then are people talking about when they criticize her for that?
No one. They’re trying to come up with excuses for either their own poor judgment or the lack of involvement in the process by people who were disinclined for many other reasons to vote.
Hillary’s loss is a case study in the dysfunction of our electoral process. She lost due to a toxic combination of apathy, anti-intellectualism, ignorance, and a media environment that offers little in the way of separating fact from fiction, truth from fraud, legitimacy from exhibitionism. The markers necessary for people to draw useful coverage from the ocean of feed in which they swim are either absent or so obscured as to be invisible. If you don’t already have an idea how to judge worthwhile from dross you simply have to guess, and a lot of people guess wrong.
Ah. Why should anyone assume that those who did not vote would have voted for Hillary? A perfectly legitimate question. The answer, roughly, has to do with turnout and dedicated numbers. The GOP seems to have a very solid army of about sixty million voters who vote that way every single time. No doubt the Democrats can count on a similar cadre. But only if the turnout is below 63%. Once turnout rises to 65% or more, the vote tends to go against the Republicans. Those voters who sit at home tend to vote Democrat or Liberal. (People like to point to Reagan’s “landslide” win, but there was only a 52% turnout. True, he buried Carter, but had the turnout been 65%…? Of course, to be fair, Bill Clinton won his second election with about the same turnout, 51%. His first, though, was 58% turnout and he buried Bush I.) Where it seems really to tell, though, is in congressional elections and the problem there is with gerrymandering. Gerrymandering has always been a bit of a problem, but the GOP has turned it into a high art. One suspects they know in a fair fight they wouldn’t have a chance. All they have is that 60 million block.
But this a very rough calculus. The question remains, why Trump?
(I suspect another chief reason Hillary lost—and part of the reason for low turnout this time—has to do precisely with her opponent. Had Cruz won the nomination, I suspect turnout would have been considerably higher, because that would have looked like a real fight instead of the joke this appeared to be, especially with the media putting out all those charts showing how she was a shoe-in because, really, who could possibly in their right mind vote for him? Of course, where it really hurt was the all-important congressional races.)
So, how is this “new era” working out for the people who voted for him?
We have already seen the dismay of many who supported him when it dawned on them that repealing the ACA meant they would lose their own health coverage. Either this is an example of stone ignorance (a few, we don’t know how many, actually did not realize that their ACA was the same thing as the hated Obamacare) or an example of self-selected delusion—that they thought the repeal would only affect people of whom they disapprove. They were voting to take it away from Other People.
It was claimed that Hillary didn’t understand lower income and working class people. That may well be true, but what kind of mental gymnastics is required to convince yourself that a billionaire born to wealth who even in bankruptcy lived a life of luxury did understand, on the kind of intuitive gut-level clearly meant by those statements?
But this is anecdotal at best.
Two questions now dominate concretely. The growing evidence of collusion with Russia in securing the election and the deals made more than a year ago. And the efficacy of Trump’s “leadership style” which seems to be nonexistent. The very first time he runs into the kind of normal roadblocks of Washington politics, namely the lost vote on the ACA repeal, he declares it a dead issue and asks congress to move on. This is lack of staying power at best, a lack of genuine conviction at worst.
During the campaign, one of things Trump said was “vote for me, what do you have to lose?” More or less. It doesn’t matter which group he was talking to, it matters which group heard him.
A recent book by Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers In Their Own Land, takes up the question of the voter block that seems consistently to vote against its own best interests. Hochschild, who lives in Berkeley, California, practically lived in Louisiana among people who are both dependent on and victimized by the oil industry. In the course of her study, many contradictions emerged. One example, she met many dedicated environmentalists—who also hated the EPA and wanted to see it gone. People who knew that the refineries and processing plants were destroying their environment, had poisoned friends and family, were responsible for wild-life die-offs, and yet resisted the idea of regulation, often because they feared it would adversely impact employment. Jobs meant more than the rest, but it was by no means a simplistic metric being applied. Many felt the companies themselves would eventually “do the right thing” and clean up and improve safety.
Reading this book gives us a tour through funland mirror thinking. Coming face to face with the blatant contradictions and the ingrained belief in systems that have repeatedly failed them and the rejection of solution because of a belief that failure from them would be even worse. The conviction that the federal government was the Enemy. Hochschild tried to find the Narrative. In anthropological terms, this is the ur-story people tell themselves in order to organize their beliefs, the strategies of their lives, and determine the principles by which they live. It’s the Who We Are story and when that is found, then what follows begins to make more sense. What Hochschild discovered was a variation of the City on the Hill dominant among these people. Instead of the religious kind, though, this one had to do with the American Dream. They believed in the idea that hard, honest work would get them to their city, where they would finally achieve the comfort and security they see as the promise of dedication. They are willing to wait their turn.
And it’s at that point that the Narrative becomes the problem. Because they see, they perceive, in their view undeserving people cutting in line in front of them. Poor people, minorities, refugees, illegal aliens. People who, in their opinion, have not done the work, have certainly not waited their turn. And in service to this, the federal government is to blame, because they see federal programs enabling this butting in.
Meanwhile, their own reward recedes before their very eyes.
Resentment is only natural.
At this point, it is fair to ask, how come the default blame goes where it goes? There are many reasons for their eroding situations. The changing economic environment, the increasing population, the influx of legal immigrants, the globalization phenomenon. Even without the federal programs they blame, it is likely their situations would be just as precarious.
Except they have been told that all those factors are the result of government overreach, government meddling, government—by means of treaties, of regulations, of corruption. Their preferred media services certainly have told them all this, but they also get it through their jobs, from the companies that are also anti-union, advocates of Right To Work, multinationals often that pretend to be America Firsters but then remove the wealth of communities and put it elsewhere.
The kind of people Donald Trump is part and parcel of.
Their fears are easily played upon because they have them. Fears. No one is doing much to educate them out of such fears. Rather they are told, from a hundred sources, that they are justified in their fears.
And they vote for anyone who tells them they are right to be afraid.
The profound distortions of fact to be found among them is indicative of much of the problem.
A few examples of belief versus reality:
Welfare rolls are up and people on welfare don’t work. The reality is, total welfare rolls dropped 20 % since 1996, which was the year of Clinton’s welfare reform, the reform that cut welfare to a short time and required work for certain benefits. As for that work, the poorest 20% only get 37% of their income from welfare. The rest is compensation for work. You might ask, if they’re working, why do they need welfare? Obviously because their jobs do not pay enough. You might want to look at the current debate over minimum wage. At best, “welfare” is a supplement, and most of the beneficiaries are children and the elderly. But of course, this is not believed by people dedicated to not believing it and scapegoating the poor.
Black women have more children than white women. I was startled that this was still current. I grew up in the heyday of the Welfare Queen, which was a canard even then. The reality is that fertility rates for white women and black women is just about equal.
Maybe as much as 40% of people work for federal and state government and are overpaid. This sounded to me like the one about foreign aid. The numbers are inflated because few people bother to find out, they just want to be angry at something. Adding together all levels of government—federal, state, and local—total workforce as a percentage of employed people comes up to around 17%. It varies with which party is in office. Republican presidents since Reagan have overseen expansions of federal workforce because it’s an easy way to finesse unemployment figures. Obama oversaw a real reduction in the size of the federal government measured by employees, but of course no one opposing him wishes to believe this. As for the overpaid aspect, on average private sector workers at comparable levels make 12% more than government employees—government employees, by the way, who often work longer hours.
These are a few of the beliefs held by people who likely voted for Trump. Clearly, there is a simple lack of fact in this, but it seems just as obvious that there is a lack of interest in any fact that contradicts as belief that helps explain their anger. Make no mistake, these are angry voters. They don’t want to be informed, they want to be vindicated.
Trump is representative of all this. Whether he genuinely believes anything he says, he has played these people. The rest of the GOP has decided evidently that as long as he’s the president, they’ll play him to get what they want.
How’s that working out?
Not well. All the myths that have been driving Tea Party and affiliated rage for a decade are now coming onto the front lines and getting an opportunity to play and it turns out that the myths aren’t based on solid anything. It seems a lot of people voted to strip Other People of things they believed were not their due. Except these angry voters will lose out as well and that wasn’t the way it was supposed to work.
The small government argument has gotten lost, consumed by a mindless urge to eliminate government altogether. People are being played by international finance. Everything in the GOP wish list serves only one end—the unopposed leaching out of latent wealth into capital pools disconnected from any nation. If Trump and Ryan and McConnell got everything they wanted, all the people who voted for them would see their incomes reduced, their savings (if any) pillaged, and jobs decimated.
For their part, the Democrats are unwilling to tackle this head on because they have become tied to the same teat for campaign financing as the GOP. They have the rage but they often waffle. With a few exceptions, they won’t call this out, but would rather work at it around the edges and try to mitigate its worst effects while avoiding being shut out of the flow of money. Fundamental policy changes are required and once in a while someone calls for something, but then they talk it to death.
In the meantime, that basket of deplorables continues to work at gorging itself at the public trough.
Hillary did not lose votes over that comment. If we’re honest, we recognized the truth. The problem with it, if anything, is she didn’t specify very well who was all in that basket. But let’s assume for a moment that saying that did have a negative effect on her campaign. Why would it? What is it about calling something out for what it is that would put off people who, perhaps secretly, agree with her? We are, those of us who count ourselves progressives, sometimes falsely delicate, it seems. Like being unwilling to use the word “lie” when in fact that is a perfectly accurate description of what the president has done. And when someone is so sunk in their own petty resentment that they are willing to dump on everyone out of revenge for what they see as their raw deal and tolerates no counterargument at all and be damned the consequences—well, that really is kind of deplorable.
Whatever the case, let’s be clear about one thing—it wasn’t the people she was talking about when she said that who changed their mind about voting for her. She was never going to get those votes.
And I doubt it turned very many if any of those leaning in her direction off at the time. They’re all just using that as a rationalization for the fact that too few of them turned up at the polls.
Come to think of, doesn’t that kind of count as deplorable?
During the campaign, I noted that the GOP was having a difficult time repudiating Trump because he in fact was saying nothing that had not been a mainline Republican position for decades. The question was one of style, not substance—although we’re getting a lesson now in how they really aren’t that different. Last night’s unofficial state of the union address represents all the evidence needed to make that claim. It should be noted that he said nothing he had not said before. The only difference was in his tone and the manner of phrasing.
Now, if you agree with the programmatic direction of the GOP, then you may find yourself quite pleased with the president’s performance last night. But then you will have to eventually come to terms with the harm that direction is likely to produce within the country and among our allies, not to mention the world in general.
He doubled down on his “Radical Islamic Terrorist” rhetoric, despite having been counciled by his new national security advisor to stop using that term, as it serves only to alienate allies and potential allies. That, therefore, had to be intentional, because clearly he didn’t write that speech. Nothing new with that, few presidents do write their own, but they all have final say in what is in them.
His use of the widow of the SEAL killed in Yemen is one of the more cynical moves I’ve seen from a public official. That she should receive sympathy is beyond question. That her husband did his duty is clear. That he used her tears in public to justify a boneheaded action, asserting that we got important and substantial intelligence as a result despite initial reports that we got nothing from it other than a lot of bodies on the ground, is pretty low. Yemen is going to be Trump’s Fast and Furious (which, despite being a mess, nevertheless produced 34 indictments of drug dealers and gun runners) and he’s trying his best right now to draw the venom and rewrite the reality.
On its face, this speech resembles what we might have expected from Rubio or Cruz, a reasonable-sounding assemblage of soundbites to float in coming weeks as talking points for policy wonks that seem mainstream Republican.
Fine. Let’s look at that.
His cabinet appointees draw a different picture than what people may be expecting. Betsy De Vos is there to destroy the Department of Education. She’s all about vouchers and so-called “school choice.” What could be wrong with that? Nothing, if that’s what it really is. But advancing private companies to manage what should be a public trust at the expense of the public institutions already in place is in the long run a reduction of choice, because eventually they will all fall into similar business models designed to turn out “product” rather than educated citizens. This is a viable system only if you have a healthy public education system to set standards and hold the private institutions accountable to those standards. If you eliminate the source of the standard then you initiate a rush to the bottom and the gradual homogenization of education into two camps—the one for the Haves and the one for the Have Nots, with predictable results.
Scott Pruitt is there to disassemble the EPA. The horror stories about the mismanagement in the EPA and its subsequent impact are the stuff of legend. Of course, with something this large and complex, people will run afoul of the rules, but to assert that the mission of the EPA is in any way unnecessary is a thread that has run through the GOP for decades. The utterly pointless and cynical removal by executive order over coal waste dumping in streams is representative. Coal as an industry is dying, at least as it has been practiced till now. The jobs lost have not disappeared because of environmental regulations—that’s just distracting rhetoric— but because we’re in a market that has seen natural gas shove coal aside massively. With the increase in sustainable and renewable energy technologies, coal is about to be marginalized even more. Basically, the coal industry that remains is in charge of a growing share of a shrinking market. But like parasites, they will suck the last juices of the decaying corpse of the industry if given a chance, and removing such regulations has the single effect of adding a few paltry dollars to the dividends they pay themselves. In the meantime, we dump on people who have to live in the resultant mess and will, once the EPA is gone, have almost no recourse to protect themselves.
Rex Tillerson is there to reverse the sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Lest anyone think this is sort of okay, let’s review. Putin oversaw a massive development of oil. The payoff could be huge, both for himself and his country. However, the pipelines run mostly through Ukraine, and Ukraine was levying a rather substantial use fee on the oil passing through. Putin wanted them to stop doing that. Things were getting tense. Money was at stake. Putin had no moral or legal grounds on which to stand, though. Then Ukraine made noises about joining NATO. That would have made anything Putin did even riskier and constrain his ability to act further. So he invaded. All the excuses were made about traditional rights of access to Sebastopol and the rights of Russian citizens living in Ukraine, etc etc, and it is true, historically Russia will do just about anything to maintain open access to the Crimea and the warm water port there, but this also removed both the NATO threat and the tax on his pipelines, at Ukraine’s expense. And lest the point is still lost, Exxon and Trump both have a financial stake in those Russian oil fields and the potential pay-out will be enormous. That’s why Tillerson is there, to line pockets.
We could go down the list. This is all good, solid Republican programming. If it hurts a corporation it is bad. If some actual people get hurt, well, collateral damage, we didn’t really mean for them to get hurt. Doing something for anyone making less than mid six-figures? Not on the table.
This is nothing new. The argument has been made that restricting corporations with regulations, taxes, and requirements to abide by some standard of fiscal ethics has cost us jobs and that removing all those things will benefit everyone. Why this is still believed I do not know, because we have now had thirty years of proof that this is not what happens. Ever.
It may well be that the counterarguments and alternative programs offered by the Democrats will not remedy the problems we face, but we should all by now realize that we are being conned by the Republicans.
The people invested in believing otherwise have given us a con artist for a president. If on occasion he manages to sound “presidential” it will serve to validate their belief that they voted for the right guy. When things still don’t improve for them, what will they say? Who will they blame?
But the con is party-wide. That’s my point—he was not expunged during the campaign because he did not run on anything that wasn’t good, solid GOP dogma. He just phrased it with less glitter and less rhetorical obfuscation. The Republicans have been practicing for decades how to “reframe” their message so it doesn’t sound so bad and so they could appeal to people who are not racists or nationalists or who might actually believe in some kind of a safety net (but only for people who “deserve” it, however you define that), but really does have the net effect if not intent of being fundamentally inegalitarian, divisive, and culturally if not biologically racist.
The con is widespread. The Democratic Party has more than a bit of this in it as well, though shifted to class distinctions rather than cultural. It makes it difficult to see an effective difference from issue to issue, but only if you don’t pay attention.
Anyway, as polished and “moderate” as last night’s speech may have been, it’s basically the same old shabby, off-the-rack suit. Putting a rose in the lapel doesn’t make it a tux.
The question came up in a recent discussion, “Why are you so sure if more people had voted they would have voted for Hillary?” Well, I’m not. I am fairly certain most of them would not have voted for Trump. I base that on a very simple number: Trump pulled the base that always votes that way and in fact received fewer votes than Mitt Romney. You can try to spin that any way you like, but to my mind that says something very significant. Namely that the GOP in its current manifestation is utterly dependent on two things to stay in office—that base and keeping the rest of the country disaffected from the political process. They do this by a number of strategies, the two most important being propaganda about their opponents and redistricting in key states. A host of lesser strategies added to these have effectively suppressed votes in some areas while largely throwing the opposing electorate into a bog of ambivalence about their political choices.
For their part, the opposition—Democrats, liberals, so-called socialists, and a variety of smaller categories with perhaps less clearly defined boundaries—have played into this by a combination of solicitude and poor explication of their positions. As well, it seems that they have failed to connect with the ground level concerns of those who normally would be their natural constituents, namely working class people being displaced by the changing economic and social ecology.
To be clear, when I say solicitude, what I mean is the perfectly reasonable and basically preferable practice of bipartisan cooperation in order to move the business of the people forward. We have a rich history to show that this always works best and it is natural to assume it is the way to govern most effectively. However, it presumes a two-way street, give and take. When one side or the other decides that no matter what, cooperation is not on the table, then it behooves the other side to understand the new paradigm and respond accordingly. When you see the kind of obdurate obstruction on the part of your opponent that we have seen for the last eight years, it becomes frustrating to see your preferred representatives continually yielding in an attempt to “work with” the other side. That willingness is being used quite opportunistically to undermine programs and run a cynical power grab to their own benefit. The Democrats for their part seem not to be willing to risk losing what seats and positions they have to form a line and push back against this, possibly because what information they get from whatever sources they use tells them people wouldn’t like it. They might even feel retributions for such resistance could cost ordinary people. Whatever the reason, they have been unwilling to play as dirty as their Republican counterparts, at least in the public’s view, and this has resulted in continual loss of confidence.
To be clear, “playing dirty” is not something either side should be doing on our behalf, at least not with each other, but it is a reality. The Right has a plan, or at least a goal, and they have adhered to it with religious fervor. One thing we should note is that criticisms of that goal based on the undesirability of it play poorly. Telling someone that what they just voted for will result in a loss of civil liberties for a particular group has no moral traction because that is exactly what the desired outcome is. When you say to someone who seems to be on this bandwagon “But you’re taking away their rights!” it is as if an imp of the perverse in the depths of their psyché claps its hands in glee and shouts “They shouldn’t have those rights in the first place!”
We must be clear about this. Legislation based on the notion that certain groups, however they’re defined, should not have certain rights—which in the parlance of the Right comes out as “privileges” instead of rights—we cannot confront this by trying to explain to them how they misunderstand the nature of such things. As far as they’re concerned, they misunderstand nothing. Their desired outcome is to suppress. What needs to be done—and is being done by many—is to confront and declare that they are flat wrong. And their success will bite them in the end when they lose their rights. Or are they privileges?
It is unpopular and unpleasant to recognize a basic misapprehension about rights. We have floated for centuries now on the belief that rights are somehow Natural. The Natural Law argument which informed most Enlightenment thinking, which is the thinking that defined the context in which the Founders constructed our national image, may have considerable to recommend it, and we could have a very healthy discussion about it, but we aren’t talking here about nature but politics. The reality is, and has always been, that a right is an artificial construct, and is only as true as our ability to assert it in the face of antagonistic forces seeking counter-advantages. This is why we put such stock in so-called Rule of Law. If a right were so self-evident, as we like to say, why would we need law to establish it, define it, and defend it? We may wax philosophical about “natural rights” all we want, but rights do not exist in nature, they are the product of intellect and political will.
This is unpopular for many reasons, but one of the chief in our present era is that it demands responsible participation, and for people who do not wish to be bothered this is burdensome.
Seldom in our history have the consequences of not wanting to be bothered come so viscerally home.
Why do I say that? Because, depending on which breakdown you look at, the entire edifice of the current Right is in power based on less than a quarter of the electorate. Somewhere between 35% and 50% nonparticipation in regular elections—all of them, not just national, but it is in national elections where the consequences are so dramatically evident—means that a minority always determines the political complexion of the country. It may well be that the true majority of Americans prefer what we have now, but we don’t know because people do not vote.
Voter suppression is real, however. Let’s not forget that. In fact, that alone is illustrative of my point above about rights. The right to vote ought to be a given, so how could it be possible to deny it to so many people? One example that rarely rises to the surface in such estimates is the approximately six million people denied the vote outright due to felony convictions. If voting is a “right” then why should that be allowed? Redistricting—gerrymandering—has resulted in distortions of state elections and subsequently a distortion of the electoral college outcomes. The Supreme Court overturn of the Voting Rights Act resulted in the closing down of several hundred polling sites, overwhelmingly in the south and overwhelmingly in African American and Hispanic districts.
But this kind of thing has been the case for a long time now and we have seen higher voter turnout even when it has been difficult for many people. Ninety million people did not participate this past November, which suggests that all the effort to dissuade as well as suppress paid off. Because Americans have traditionally disdained politics, advantage was taken.
All the major news sources failed to behave ethically, some morally. Trump received an inordinate amount of free air time and in a culture that values celebrity the way we do, negative coverage can be just as useful as good coverage. Any careful analysis of what he said on the campaign trail shows he had very little of any substance. Hillary Clinton demonstrated clear superiority in all three of her debates with him—command of facts, comprehension of the global situation, a set of policy positions—while his entire rebuttal amounted to “She’s a nasty woman.”
Uncharitably but realistically, one can only conclude that people did not vote for her because they didn’t like the way she dressed.
The argument that she carried a “lot of baggage” is simply another way to avoid the responsibilities of reason and the requirements of citizenship. During the course of the campaign, as details emerged, and material was made available, it became increasingly clear that most of the negativity about her was baseless, that in fact she proved to be even more honest than her chief rival, Bernie Sanders (a fact which surprised even me), but overcoming well-nurtured antipathies and working through the tsunami of rightwing invective about her apparently proved to be too much effort.
During the campaign one could make the argument that Trump’s opposition was based on the same kinds of detractions—smear—and that once he was in office it would be different.
I doubt any reasonable person, even one who voted for him, in the secret chambers of their own heart, thinks he is doing the job they may have imagined him doing.
On the other hand, maybe he is. Maybe what was desired was no more than validation in the office of the president of their basic belief that government does not work. Maybe they put him there purely to prove their opinion—uninformed, ill-considered, often bitter and sometimes malevolent—was right.
Whatever their reasons, what should concern us all is that so many who most likely feel otherwise felt it acceptable to stay home.
But to return for a moment to the current situation. Trump’s selections for his cabinet demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of the purpose of the office. He is surrounding himself with mediocrities. Nixon did the same thing, but he also had a few people who actually knew what they were doing. The conflicts of interest alone ought to disqualify most of these people, but the Republican majority is proceeding to try to rubberstamp them. To be clear, Rex Tillerson is not a mediocrity—but clearly he has no business being there. I’m sure some would disagree, but his financial ties to Russia alone argue against him, and right now a bill is being introduced in the Senate to repeal a disclosure law that sheds light on foreign bribes which has been a thorn in the side of Exxon.
Trump did not seem to be aware that Steve Bannon would have to be approved by the Senate before taking a seat on the national security council. This is basic knowledge.
We can continue, but his supporters will not care. What is important is that those rights of which I spoke must be recognized as at risk and that relying on the privilege of never having been a target to remain uninvolved is inexcusable.
Lastly, regarding Trump, is the question of moral suitability. “Giving him a chance” is an empty plea. When he mocked Serge Kovaleski, he demonstrated a clear absence of moral capacity. How can I say that? He was just goofing? No. This is basic. This was at the level of courtesy, it is so basic. We don’t even consider it in the context of moral failing because we view it in terms of good manners. But this was a powerful man making fun of a less powerful man in public (South Carolina) in order to discredit him. Rather than attack the news article that prompted the attack, he attacked Kovaleski’s handicap. That is the tactic of a bully.
No. Special pleading, “Oh, he didn’t mean it”, attempts at recontextualizing it after the fact, none of that alters the fact that he behaved boorishly, without regard for another human being, attacking—mocking—the thing that had nothing to do with any issue at hand, and then lying about it afterward. That was a test and he failed. And if you voted for him, you failed, too.
So, reality check: Supposedly, you voted to “Make America Great Again.” How is that working out? We have a bully in the White House who instead of “draining the swamp” is importing more alligators. None of them have a thing in common with you unless you’re a member of the seven figures annually club (and most of them probably did not vote for him). He is threatening to end longtstanding agreements around the world, given verbal approval to Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear programs, annoyed China to the point where a war is at least imaginable, appointed people to his cabinet with zero expertise in the fields chosen for them, thrown hissyfits on Twitter over the size of the crowd at his inauguration, placed gag orders on various agencies, made promises he is either backing out of or revising to fit the feedback he gets from FOX News, has anointed a xenophobe as his chief strategist, threatened long-settled law with Executive Orders, allowed that a man dead since 1882 is an African American who has done great work that is being recognized more and more, asked for prayer at the first national prayer breakfast for the new host of one of his reality shows, and has yet to release his tax returns while threatening American businesses and playing with their futures by indiscriminately tweeting about them. He has given tacit approval to the president of the Philippines for his “program” of murdering alleged drug dealers in the streets without due process and he has gotten into a flame war with the president of Mexico over a wall that would do nothing to alleviate a problem he has no real concept about in the first place. He has signed an order barring immigration based on religion—no, it is, because we have it on record that he asked several people, especially Giuliani, how he could legally keep Muslims out of the country, so his backpedaling on that is for naught—while not barring immigration from countries we already know have originated terrorists that did us harm. He is restarting the antipathies with Iran that over two decades of diplomacy was beginning to alleviate and get us to a point of normalizing relations with, in spite of their presumed leadership, what is really is a moderate country and could be an ally given the right moves on our part. He has placed people’s lives in jeopardy over this for no reason other than apparently a lot of his supporters are scared to death of people who dress funny and speak with an accent. The only reason he has apparently, for now, backed off of attacking LGBTQ rights is that a “friend” of his called and asked him not to.
There is no thoughtful consideration evident in any of this.
While all this is going on, at the state level we have a sea of Republican controlled legislatures and governors who are passing Right To Work bills designed to strip unions of any serious power and although we have seen the consequences of such laws in state after state wherein standard of living and even environmental conservation erode in their wake, somehow the people voting for these representatives believe it won’t happen to them.
My conclusion is that such votes are driven by spite. The almost volcanic eruption of people who suddenly realized that they might loser their healthcare under the man they voted for is telling. It’s just probable that they thought it would only affect Those People Over There, the ones they’ve been told to fear and hate, who have been “getting away with things” and “cut in line” and “get things they don’t deserve.” Along with that, the number of people who apparently did not understand that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare were one in the same thing, while marginally amusing on one level, is stunning example of the corrupting power of corporate media.
Next up is the privatization of Social Security and MediCare. I’m sure some people think doing so won’t change a thing and then maybe congress can balance the budget and pay off the national debt. I’m sure some feel that way.
I’ve been trying to compose my thoughts about what transpired last November that has left us with one of the most uncertain political situations we have faced in so long that I find it difficult to make a comparison. Possibly Rutherford B. Hayes. Possibly Harding.
The aspect of this that has baffled me most is the fact that sixty million of my fellow citizens cast a ballot for a man they do not trust.
An odd statement, I know, but in all the rhetoric I’ve seen, both before and after the election, I see very little that suggests anyone actually trusts Trump. That’s not to say there weren’t many reasons for those who did to vote for him, but I don’t believe trust is one of them. Maybe it’s opposite. Certainly a good dose of cynicism was involved.
I’m not going to rehearse here the various theories about stolen or corrupted elections. I’m not concerned with that at the moment. What I’m concerned about is those sixty million voters. Those and the ninety million who did not vote. For the purposes of this piece, I see them all of a piece.*
So one hundred fifty million Americans put a man in the White House they do not trust. Other metrics were involved. Other motives.
Firstly, about that trust thing.
When Obama was elected, people voted for him with a measure of confidence that he would represent their interests. That change was in the offing. That he was capable of making a difference to the benefit of the country. They talked about hope and change interchangeably. It was obvious that they felt he would do positive things. They trusted him. Both times.
And the reaction of his opponents came out of recognition of that basic reality. What his enemies had to do was destroy that trust, if possible. And because of that trust, their main weapon was denial. Because it meant their candidates did not command such confidence or trust. He had to be shown, therefore, to be ineffective.
He had to be delegitimized.
In the brawl over the last eight years, perhaps they succeeded on a level not intended. They did not, I think, manage to delegitimize President Obama. Rather, they fulfilled one of Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical dictums and managed to delegitimize the idea of governance.
No, I don’t think that’s what they intended to do, but the fight they engaged was over fundamental principles of the purpose of government. In past fights, it was easier to simply discredit the person in office, either by impugning his reputation or exposing corrupt policies. This time, though, they had neither opportunity, not in any useful way. What policies they attempted to present as corrupt were not. Some of them were mistakes, some bad ideas, some poorly managed, but none were in any way explicitly corrupt. And the man himself offered nothing to attack. Even Obama’s detractors, unless they were being programmatically obtuse, could not but respect him.
Which left them only with a fight over principles.
Which they were losing.
Why else adopt a tactic of pure and undifferentiated obstruction? This became obvious with the nomination of Merrick Garland, who had previously enjoyed more than a little praise from the very people who then refused to even have hearings about his appointment to the Supreme Court. There was no good reason to do this. It was purist petulance. The commitment on the part of GOP senators and representatives to block everything Obama attempted to do had no basis in logic or sound thinking. It was entirely party driven. A short-sighted policy to delegitimize Obama’s presidency.
The intent, no doubt, was to show Obama’s philosophy of governance wanting. That the Democrats, as exemplified by the president, had no good ideas. That based on their success at roadblocking even discussions on his policy measures the Republicans would show themselves as morally and philosophically superior.
The problem is, without that discussion there is no way to know who has the superior governing philosophy. Ideas need airing, discussion, debate in order to determine their merit. Instead, the GOP has successfully damaged, possibly destroyed, public trust in governance of any kind, at least at the federal level, for a substantial number of citizens. By blanket opposition to anything Obama attempted, nothing was shown to be superior—only achievable. Namely, the inevitable loss of public confidence in government.
They managed to strip the presidency of legitimacy.
They intended to strip Obama of legitimacy. They failed. He still retains it. But he’s leaving office. It is the office that has been damaged, though public understanding of that fact has probably not caught up with the reality.
What could be more inevitable then that we elect a man who already has no legitimacy to an office that may be badly lacking it?
The idea of legitimacy is a tricky one. It precedes trust. It is an intangible assumption that a person or institution deserves to be entrusted with representational responsibilities, that they are what they appear to be, that their actions, in part and in total, are born out of sound motives and based on confidence in the abilities and competencies required to be present and at the ready. In part, it is a kind of faith that what will be done will be done for the benefit of the community. That even in failure, the attempts to fulfill duties are done in good faith. When all these various implicit characteristics are in place and extant, then trust follows.
Legitimacy underlies all assumptions of power back to the days of kings and pharaohs and other potentates. It is the reason for such grave concern over lineage and the legal rights of heirs and successors. Because continuity is important, certainly, but the imprimatur of authority must be seen to pass rightfully from one hand to the next in order for chaos to be kept at bay. It is a delicate, powerful thing which, when in place, is hardly thought of but once damaged or absent can be seen as all important. Which explains both why we are now so troubled by possible outside interference with this election and why forms are being so rigorously defended by those who know something is amiss. Why, specifically, the Electoral College did not act in its legal capacity to change its vote in the face of evident misadventure and the clear unsuitability of the president elect—because in the absence of legitimacy in the outcome the legitimacy of the institutions must be protected. Because the office has been damaged in the eyes of the people, a changed vote by the Electors could easily have been the final blow to a marginally creditable system. Barring Trump would be seen as less a decision against a usurper than as one more reason to distrust the system.
I say “usurper” purposefully, though with full admission of the irony implied.
It was usurpation that invented those so-called popular sanctions, those speeches, those monotonous congratulations, the customary tribute that in every age the same men pay, with great prodigality and in almost the same words, to the most contradictory measures. In them, fear apes all the appearances of courage, to congratulate itself on its own shame and to express thanks for its own misfortunes. A peculiar stratagem that deceives no one! A game that impresses no one and that should have succumbed long ago to the arrows of ridicule! But ridicule attacks all and destroys nothing.
Benjamin Constant, On the Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation, 1814
Constant was talking about Napoleon, of course, but consider—Napoleon achieved a position of ultimate power in France with the assent of the people who claimed legitimacy to bestow that power. That Napoleon turned out to be other than what anyone expected made him a species of usurper. He replaced legitimate authority by virtue of pure assertion. That he did so in the wake of the complete loss of legitimacy on the power of the monarchy only underscored the fact that he had no authenticity, only the force of a manufactured popular mandate.
People loved him.
For a while, at least. And when he had been beaten and exiled the first time, the Sisyphean task of recovering legitimacy in a Restoration ran into the reality of a desolated economy and a broken public trust led to a final surge of popular support during his Hundred Days.
Now, a usurper can still do the job, but has the same problem as the delegitimized “rightful” ruler, namely a lack of trust from the people. In this instance, the office is the damaged part, which is why Obama was unable to pass on his still-intact legitimacy to an heir, namely Hillary Clinton. Large segments of the popular base that swept him into office in two historic elections did not stir itself to grant its favor upon her because she had been the one the ongoing attempts to delegitimize Obama had successfully tainted. They could not damage him so they attacked his staff. The repeated harangue over settled questions served his enemies well, because she was seen finally as corrupt—so corrupt in fact that her corruption was beyond revelation.
Constant again: Usurpation brutalizes a people while oppressing it—accustoms it to trample on what it respected, to court what it despises, to despise itself. And if usurpation manages to endure for any length of time, it actually makes impossible any freedom or improvement after its fall.
The irony in our case, of course, is that the usurpation has been done for the usurper, rather than by him.
When I say that no one who supported him trusts Trump I base this on the immediate and almost desperate sounding apologia that followed on the heels of his election, that he never really meant all the things he said, that he was speaking allegorically or metaphorically, or, more cynically still, that he was only saying those things in order to win and would never actually act on any of it. Often these apologies are made by people who months before lauded him for plain-speaking, for “saying it like it is,” for being “genuine.” And again, this was all said with no sense of irony. Wishful thinking, perhaps. But disturbingly, I think, based on a perception that it didn’t really matter, which suggests either no understanding of what was happening or an admission that all faith in the office had been lost and it was of no consequence who inhabited it.
Of course, the apologies on his behalf also suggest some understanding of how undesirable those things he said actually are. People made excuses for the visiting uncle at Thanksgiving who couldn’t stop telling off-color jokes and wondering why cousin so-n-so had to go an marry someone not of his or her ethnicity. Oh, he doesn’t really mean that, he’s just being, you know—
And no one seems to have the authority, the moral will—the legitimacy—to tell him to leave, or just shut up. Possibly because they see him as a founder of the feast.
This is no surprise in a movement which on the one hand is represented by David Brooks and on the other end by Alex Jones.
The lack of trust manifests among those who must now work with him. Many stepped up to voice opposition to him during the campaign, but are now backpedaling because they see him as the one who may be useful to them. But while they may be acting as if everything is as it should be, they do not trust him, and may well believe he is not legitimate. They’re stuck, though, because the institutions they have worked so hard to control are in danger of collapse after several decades of sapping, and if they move aggressively to correct what is clearly a mistake they risk losing everything they have worked toward.
In order for a government to work effectively, a certain degree of confidence must be in place that what it does is done legitimately. The general populace may know some of what goes on, but the entire point of a government is in its function of dealing with things too vast and complex for the average citizen to access, at least in the details. We have to trust that the institutions in place are managed by people who do what they do with a minimum degree of competence and for the benefit of those they represent. When Reagan began his campaign of delegitimizing the very idea of government (“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” August 12, 1986) he put at risk that powerful, fragile trust necessary for a government to function. It has never been a question of criticizing the government—we have always done that, it is part of the very institutions we rely on that we do that—but the very idea that the general will can be legitimately expressed through those institutions that Reagan called into question.
I doubt he intended the results we see now, but this is his true legacy. This is what has become of popular conservatism.+ Whether intended or not, this has been the consequence of the struggle against progressivism.
Conservatism itself has been usurped. It has morphed from a philosophy of preservation and economic and demographic caution to one that simply rejects change. From there it has become dynamically retrograde, identifying a priori change as a viable target, rejected out of hand as having somehow violated conservative prerogatives. Hence the assault on even New Deal concepts which have long become part of the settled landscape of Things To Be Conserved. (The entire movement to privatize as many public programs as possible is part of this. Should they acknowledge the legitimacy of these programs as part of the proper purview of government, they would be forced to admit change as a necessary aspect of their philosophy.)
There is in the current manifestation of the Conservative movement a deeply-nurtured mediocrity. Partly this is a result of a mangled understanding of the nature of equality, but mostly it stems from a distrust of anything that requires imagination or innovation. The only vision put forth by their best lights is a vague ritual solemnity that masks an avarice without taste and certainly stripped of genuine morality. Form is all and even in that it is only the form of denial.
There is no climate change. There is no viable secularism. There is nothing to evolution. There is no alternative to oil, capitalism, or god.
There is no good progress.
Whether intended or not, this has been the consequence of their struggle against progressivism. Lacking a substantive alternative, they have engaged a battle of labels. Over time, the things meant by those labels have been abandoned, so we no longer know—possibly on either side—what they mean. So attempts at restructuring the economic landscape, for instance, to shift the flow of resources to a broader population are labeled Socialist, but what is meant by that within the context of the struggle has nothing to do with socialism.
So what has replaced genuine conservatism is a regressive denial of progress. Consequently, one method in play to thwart progress is the categorical dismantling of the material and legal scaffolding on which any progress depends for any success. Like social security. Or voting rights. Progress is not to be trusted. Therefore the tools and foundations of it must be denied those who would most likely pursue it on behalf of those who would most likely support its use. The so-called Safety Net must be destroyed so those it allows a degree of comfort and security to move forward cannot affect change.
This philosophy has been ideal for those who have been pouring huge amounts of money into the political process in order to secure for themselves a free field of movement to guarantee their hegemony over resources. The use of money in campaigns may have begun as a tool to support ideas and a representational legitimacy, but as the contest fragmented and the points of focus were lost, it became a means of winning. When it was no longer clear what winning served, money became the end in itself. Building war chests on the chance that one day there might be a philosophy worth supporting has become endemic to the struggle. Consider the point-free arguments over taxation. We rarely hear clear arguments over what use taxes are to be put, only increasingly strident rhetoric over whether they should even exist. Meanwhile, borrowing continues, because that feeds private coffers which then pay for more strident anti-tax rhetoric.
Through all this the one thing that is excised from our political life that will be perhaps the final brace to a damaged system is competence. Competence aligned to legitimacy is dangerous to a self-justifying mediocrity.
As I said at the beginning, I did not intend to talk about outside intervention here. I am concerned with the voters, who have chosen to reward an illegitimate candidate, both by direct ballot and, more importantly, by abstention. The work of delegitimizing our institutions is all but accomplished and this election is proof. Because popular sentiment became invested not in the office but in the persons involved, to the exclusion of much if not everything else. Once there was a time when it did not matter so much which candidate won, we all trusted that certain basic duties of the office would be fulfilled regardless.# So those who lost grumbled and went home and geared up for the next election and got on with their lives knowing the scaffolding and superstructure was in place. That the one who won at minimum would fulfill the required functions of the office to the general benefit of the community. We trusted in the legitimacy of the elected candidate. We could change our mind in four years.
That did not happen this time. One hundred fifty million voters decided there was no legitimacy to be had, so on the one hand keep the competent one out and on the other hand assume a principle aloofness and refuse to participate. Because those who voted for Trump do not trust him. This will become apparent. Nor do they have confidence in the institutions anymore, so why elect someone who would be adept at running those institutions?
They have placed themselves in a mindset that allows for no real alternatives other than the continued deterioration of systems they no longer believe in but hope will not abandon them. We have a crisis of legitimacy. Worthy candidates will be seen as more a danger than a benefit because making things work to our benefit has been characterized as somehow inimical to our identity.
In a way, we have usurped our own government. In its place will now be a set of forms that will set the stage for a series of convulsions until finally we get past the constraints of our fear.
*And yes, I acknowledge that voter suppression was an active force in all of this, but ninety million? No, suppression cannot account for even half of that.
+ To be clear, I do not see this movement as legitimately conservative. This is the name they have taken from people who are or were genuine conservative thinkers and who would never have countenanced the circus taking place under their rubric.
#No, I do not mean to suggest there were no differences between candidates, only that regardless who won, which ideology or philosophy became dominant for the duration, the institutions of the country could be depended on to continue and that certain values were held on common by both sides of the political divide.
Talk is heating up about the possibility that the Electoral College might displace Trump and select Clinton. I have a couple of thoughts on this.
Firstly, this would be perfectly legitimate. If you need a historical reference, check Federalist #68, which discusses the electoral college and its purpose. Remember, the United States was formulated as a republic, which is not the same thing as a democracy. The Founders wanted to keep a firewall between The People and their government. Over the course of time, we have gotten used to the idea that We The People directly elect our national representatives. We do not, although it certainly appears that way and most folks can be forgiven for believing otherwise.
As constituted, the Electoral College was to be the final say. The possibility that someone completely unsuited to the presidency drove the Founders to cautious hedging. The phrase which no doubt will be oft-quoted in the coming weeks till the Electors meet is this one:
“Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States”
What they sought to do was prevent the possibility of a demagogue rising to the highest office, which in many ways seems to have just happened. But the entire paper is worthy of scrutiny. for instance:
“It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief. The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.”
Historically, there have been instances of individual Electors changing their initial votes. There has never been an instance where the College overturned an election presumably won during the popular election. Needless to say, occasionally there have been presidents elected by the College who lost the popular vote. Four times before now.
There are two things to bear in mind in the current situation. The first is the mood of the country. We had two unpopular candidates. One was unpopular for perfectly understandable reasons, namely the things that came out of his mouth during the campaign. The other was unpopular for a variety of reasons that have to do with public perception and the complex propaganda of her enemies. Be that as it may, the campaign season has been tainted by an excess of irrationality. We already saw threats of armed uprising by certain groups should the “wrong” candidate win. We are now seeing mass protests by people who are profoundly unsettled by the one who presumably did win. The divide is severe and based now as much on wish-fulfillment and the swift justifications of revisionism as on the perception of looming catastrophe. And now we are seeing a mounting count of popular votes accruing the presumed loser, far more than can be reasonably explained away by statistical error.
It would seem a good time for the Electoral College to exercise its legal authority.
But at what risk? Civil War? Riot, certainly.
Which leads directly to the second point. The Republican Party controls both houses of congress and several high-ranking members have already stated they will oppose anything and everything Hillary Clinton might do, basically a continuance of their stance toward Obama. What point is there, then, in handing her the election by way of an arcane and untested method if for four years she will be required to do nothing but dodge political bullets, worry over impeachment, and be thwarted at every turn? As it now stands, she’s damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. Had there been any turnover in congress to increase the Democratic presence, it might be worth a shot.
I’m asking questions here not proposing solutions. We have made someone the Principle who clearly cannot do the job. We have elected exactly the kind of person the Founders sought to guard against by establishing the Electoral College. The question is, if they act how will that much change the next four years.
Something to think about.
The number will make sense presently.
It’s Friday. I’ve spent the last few days trying to process what happened Tuesday. It is not going well. I’m angry, frightened, and more than a little disgusted by the fact that we allowed Donald Trump to be elected president. I’m a cynic most days, an optimist forced by reality to concede that the world is perhaps more malign than not. But I’m also, marginally, an intellectual. By that I mean someone who deals with that reality by trying to understand it and make it cogent. By looking at things through the lens of causality, knowing that events are products, usually of combinations of factors no one person can see. So when the inexplicable happens, I do my best to analyze it and find the underlying drivers. This is how I am able to walk out my door every morning and conduct my life.
It is clear from everyone’s reactions that no one expected this, least of all Trump. I think he was planning his next reality show, Real Losers of Presidential Races. For that reason among many others, I do not believe he is even remotely prepared for the unsortable mess he is about to be required to deal with. As for the country, well, we’ve been playing with this idea that a “businessman” might be a good president. We’re about to find out.
What concerns me even more is the vast ocean of Red that now controls the country. If Trump’s election was some kind of protest against establishment Washington, it failed, because most of the incumbents kept their seats. So clearly there was only one office this vote was aimed at. I’ve been saying to anyone interested in my opinion that possibly the more important part of this election was Congress. Well, clearly no one listens to me.
Why am I so pessimistic about this election? Because the ideology in control of this majority is contrary to everything I thought we were trying to build. I can’t think of one thing these people want to do that will be good for anyone but the rich. And actually I don’t think it will be very good for them in the long run, either.
Trump has sided with congressional Republicans in a desire to repeal what they persistently misname Obamacare. There are people who have been hurt by this law, yes. But there are many, many others who for the first time in their lives had access to meaningful healthcare. Those millions will lose that unless what the Republican Party intends to do is simply expand MediCare to cover them. That is not in their playbook. They are committed to a policy that you should pay for your life yourself, that it is not the government’s job to make your life easier or better, even if the condition of your life is a consequence of government policy in the first place. So the ACA gets repealed, insurance companies start voiding existing policies which are not profitable, healthcare costs resume their precipitous rise, and in a few years people start dying from treatable and often preventable illnesses that they might have avoided had they had the resources. The pharmaceutical industry will once again gouge people, their profits will once more soar to ridiculous heights, and the poor will go begging.
Trump wants to “do something” about immigration. What he and apparently the majority of GOP congressional members mean by that involves mass deportations, stricter rules for visas, green cards, guest worker permits, etc, and punitive restraints against countries which have a problem with drug cartels running roughshod over them and making life hell for people trying to make a living, which is why they’re coming here in the first place. We do not recognize “life under threat from a drug dealer” to be a legitimate form of persecution, so the drug war, which we fund, puts all these countries and their citizens in a bind which we refuse to take responsibility for. Medium-sized businesses here that presently rely on guest workers (which is a good portion of the agricultural industry not owned by Archer Daniels Midland and the like) will find themselves stripped of a labor force they to date have had a difficult if not impossible time replacing with Americans who can’t afford to live on seasonal work at low wages. Other examples abound. This will also mean deporting children and young people born here but never naturalized who have never known any other country. In essence if not status they are Americans, but no matter. Their “documents” are not in order.
Trump wants to produce jobs, “big league.” Obama will be leaving office after presiding over seven years of the largest private sector jobs growth since the end of the Vietnam War (which is very relevant, that date), but Trump and the GOP act as if nothing has changed since 2008. If you are one of those still underemployed or out of work, maybe Obama’s record makes no difference to you. But it should. The usual method of pumping up jobs numbers, employed by both parties but much indulged in recent times by the very Republican administrations who vowed to shrink the size of the government, has been to increase federal jobs and supply grants to states for state jobs. These are not stable jobs because they depend on funding tools that are also unreliable given the recent push to cut spending and cut taxes. Obama has reduced the deficit, which will rise if President Trump opts to pump money into infrastructure programs in order to produce those jobs. If he intends to stick to the GOP pledge to cut taxes even further, that means he will have to borrow the money, which will increase the debt again. We don’t have much wiggle room there after the catastrophic policies of the Bush years. We’re going to be bouncing up against 100% of GDP and then, Katy-bar-the-door if we have another recession because there will simply be no relief. Trump has a track record of borrowing and defaulting. He cannot default on this kind of debt, so the question will be,. what then?
But I can get behind a push to invest in infrastructure. We need it badly. What I cannot get behind is the continued refusal to address the extraction of capital out of our economy by way of a tax cut program that sees even more money sucked into the coffers of Big Business and out of the country. You can’t increase spending AND cut taxes forever. Eventually you reach the point where the mule dies. (Old joke, the farmer who tries to train his mule to work on less and less food over time, until one day the mule keels over dead and he doesn’t understand why.)
I will say this again. I know people don’t like taxes, but it’s largely reflexive. They fail repeatedly to understand whose taxes are supposed to go up. Coupled with the fact that to make up for what states are not getting from the federal government anymore, local taxes have to rise, the blame is universal. People want services, but they don’t want to pay for them. As services deteriorate due to lack of funds, they complain when a tax increase is sought which is intended to bring those services back up to par. It’s a vicious circle of misapprehension.
Taxes are one of the surest tools to fix capital in a community.
Be that as it may, let us go on.
Why did people vote for Trump? We don’t have to dig far to understand that by his own words he is a misogynist, a racist, someone who sees no problem contradicting himself, a liar, what we used to call a demagogue. The projections for the election gave him a very low chance of winning. What happened?
A combination of things. People wanted someone not a Washington “insider.” Whatever that means. No, I know what it’s intended to mean, but then why did they send all their incumbents back? But Trump is not an insider, so there is that.
A certain segment of the population has been chafing under what they derisively term Political Correctness for decades. It’s like having your table manners constantly corrected. Why can’t I haver as baseball team named after Native Americans? Why does that make me “culturally insensitive?” It’s just baseball. And why do I have to adjust a lifetime of rote understanding to accommodate a biological male using the girls’ bathroom at my daughter’s high school? And why are you still making me feel bad about slavery 150 years after it ended? And why can’t I whistle at a pretty woman on the street?
Why do I have to change everything I’ve always taken for granted because someone I don’t know has gotten their feelings hurt?
Of course it’s more complicated than that, but for many it amounts to that level of anger. They want to be who they are and not be criticized for it.
Unfortunately, this includes a host of less trivial-sounding factors, like reflexive distrust of anyone who doesn’t look like them, talk like them, think like them, or go to church like them. These are not harmless traits, as we have seen. Racism, nativism, intolerance, protectionism, all aided and abetted by a thick strain of anti-intellectualism which manages to include antagonism toward expertise, toward science, toward any kind of reasoning that calls into question who they are.
Added to that, we have people who have adopted a political view akin to religious dogma. Hillary is a criminal. No matter that she has been investigated, questioned, and cleared on every charge for decades. FOX news or Rush Limbaugh told them. This is holy. They will not be dissuaded because if they have this wrong then everything they believe, everything they are, is wrong, and then what? It took them years to acquire the veneer of informed opinion, they have neither the time or the capacity to undo all that armchair work.
Then there are people who truly believe the federal government is nothing but evil, just by virtue of existing, and they may feel that this is a good chance to see it crippled. The instances of militia groups declaring armed uprisings should Hillary win are examples.
Some people are so enamored of money that anyone with more than seven figures to their name is automatically worthy of respect if not outright admiration.
Finally, there are those who simply cannot get past the idea of a woman in charge. For them, it wouldn’t have mattered who it was. I doubt Michelle Bachman or Sarah Palin would have gotten their vote.
It may also be that, Americans being traditionally contrarian, a sizeable number of voters resented being told that Hillary was a shoe-in. We still retain a perverse affection for the underdog—I say perverse because we don’t seem very consistent on who that may be. When some CEO raking in hundreds of millions of dollars on bonuses complains about the cruel regulations placed on his company can successfully pose as a persecuted underdog, we may have a problem with understanding what that word actually is intended to describe. Be that as it may, I wouldn’t doubt that a significant fraction of those who voted for Trump did so out of a misplaced sense of fairness.
Which brings me to the number. 47. That would be 47%. According to some polls, that is the percentage of people who did not vote. Ninety million, more or less. I suspect the odds are good that the overwhelming majority of them would probably have voted against Trump. Since this has been the case in the past, I’m going to assume it to be true. Hillary did win the popular vote.
Oh, certainly a lot of them stayed home because they didn’t get to vote for Bernie Sanders. “I didn’t get my candidate so I’m not going to vote at all!” I have zero respect for this. For many reasons, but just look at what you have done to the rest of us if that’s your reasoning. Because if so, you not only left us with Trump, you were also instrumental in all those GOP incumbents going back to Congress. You have damaged us with your petty snit. “If I can’t have chocolate ice cream, I don’t want any!”
But there are many others who saw the projections and decided they didn’t need to go vote because Hillary was a shoe-in. Despite the fact that she told you not to rely on those polls. But even if that were the case and she was a shoe-in and she had won, the fact that you also didn’t vote to oust the Republican majority would have meant four years of the kind of grinding gridlock Obama has been through. This was irresponsible.
47% of you decided to have no say in the future of your country and by your absence you have left us with what may turn out to be the most devastating administration since—
I won’t say. You have no sense of history. You don’t understand the concept of voting strategically. I can only conclude that you are either selfish or lazy. Either way, you will learn the price of abstaining. As will we all.
I’m not criticizing people who voted third party. They voted. They acted responsibly.
So thank you for your nonparticipation. The subsequent state of the country can be laid in large part at your feet. You have, by your absence, shot us all in the face.
This is, in my experience, a liberal problem. I remember back in the Sixties, when the country was in comparable disarray, how the Left began to hate liberals. It seemed to many that the Left was a monolith, and subsequently all of them were painted with the same brush and labeled Liberal. Liberal bashing has been a hallmark of the Republican Right since Reagan took office, but really the GOP should be grateful to liberals, because they are so uninvolved. There are likely many reasons for this, but the big one I have noticed is that liberals don’t seem to have any staying power. They attack a cause, work to solve the problems, often overcome obstacles and put reforms in place. Things change. And then a curious thing happens. They go home. They leave the field.
In a way, this is understandable and very American. For them, politics is a grimy, necessary chore that must be attended to in order to have the time, the space, and the freedom to do all the other things in life worth doing. We should be able to solve the damn problem and be done with it. Finished. Now there are Other Things. They assume the fix is done and we can go about our lives.
The Right has been like that as long as there was a status quo few people complained about. But that hasn’t been the case since the Korean War. So the Right does what it does. For many of them, this is religion. They fight, they stay, they don’t go home. So when the liberal left decides it has won and does go home, the conservatives are still there, working to undo everything they don’t like. That has been happening since 1980, consistently, and it is time liberals learned this lesson. You can’t assume problems stays fixed.
Whatever the base cause, the fact remains that, at least for me, everything I like about this country is under attack by people who, for a variety of reasons, don’t like what progress has brought them. In my opinion, they have bought the argument that it is not rich people taking everything not nailed down that is hurting them but all the people who have benefited from the totality of a civil rights movement that has not yet finished its work.
I still believe we can make a pretty good world. But we have to collectively get over the idea that unrestrained acquisition is the only valid metric of success.
But you people who stayed home and left us with this mess? Read between the lines.
Maybe I should have waited till January, but then again maybe I’ll change the theme again then. But I was starting to get bored with the old one and decided that–because I’m older now, but why that should matter I don’t know–it was time for a new look. This one has sliding images on the header. I grabbed a couple at random but I’ll likely change those at some point.
This has been a fascinating year. My boss asked me–because I’m older–if I’d ever witnessed an election cycle this bizarre.
Contentious, yes. Clownish, surreal, weird–no. It’s been suggested that you’d have to go back to Lincoln’s election to find one even close to this in unpredictably oddball strangeness, and that’s a good contender, what with the near-demise of the Democratic Party as it split into three smaller parties, the Know Nothings, variations of fence-sitters, nativist groups, and the odd prediction of the apocalypse. Note that the Democratic Party of that time would have been the functional equivalent–even the philosophical equivalent–of the current Republican Party.
1968 was the first presidential year in which I had any kind of political awareness, and that was a bad one. We had Wallace running a third party ticket based on the assertion that there was no real difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties (it would end up being a race between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, after an assassination and a steamroll over McGovern), but he himself was a nativist bigot who would most closely resemble the governor of Maine these days.
Nixon won on the promise of ending the Vietnam War (he didn’t, at least not fast enough for most of the country) and to “bring us together again”–which he also didn’t because he turned out to be a paranoid misanthrope. I wonder how many people who had voted for him wished they’d gone with Humphrey, even though he had some baggage as well. In 1972, Nixon was challenged by Edmund Muskie, who was a decent man who might have turned the country around, but the RNC ran a smear campaign highlighting his wife’s problems with depression. As I say, Muskie was a decent man and withdrew rather than put his family through what he correctly perceived as a new level of nastiness. You can probably trace it from there how our campaigns have become obsessed with the personal and have lost all sense of decency and decorum. Carter may well have been our last decent president from the old school of national politics.
It is possible, though I do not expect it, that we may be able to alter the way we conduct politics. It has reached a new low this time with a candidate who embodies all the worst aspects of the vulgar side of the American character. People support him because they are getting off on being able to be rude, sexist, racist, and basically what they mistakenly see as open and honest. Trump has elevated the idea that trash sitcoms are the highest form of national philosophy. He’s a one-man roadshow based on Three and a Half Men and Sh*t My Dad Says.
And we have come to see what happens when people decide they have “won” the field and go home. I’ll leave everyone to sort out who I’m talking about. I’ll add that clearly the mean-spirited, compulsively frightened element of the Far Right were the ones who did NOT go home and today we see the results of their taking the field. The Koch Brothers, the Tea Party, Alex Jones, Breitbart, Limbaugh…
I’ve unfriended a few people on Facebook over this. First time since I’ve been on it I have preemptively done so, because I just get so weary of the mindless toxicity that shows up on my feed from them. One in particular galled me by completely failing to make a distinction between fiction and personal opinion. Maybe all of them, but one in particular decided that since J. K. Rowling had written about ugly things she had no standing to condemn the ugliness in real life.
I suppose one of the things that has bothered me more than maybe it should is the upsurge of people who don’t seem to understand the meaning of personal choice when it comes to sex. I didn’t expect Rush Limbaugh to understand it and it didn’t surprise me when he came out condemning Consent. But so many other people who ought to know better…
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve known people who seemed to think that if a woman decided to have a sex life on her own terms it meant she should be willing to fuck anyone who comes along, indiscriminately. I thought there were fewer of them and I’ve been dismayed at how many women seem to think that way. But it makes one thing abundantly clear, that no matter what else you might think about Hillary’s relationship with Bill, there was no way she could have divorced him and have the remotest chance of becoming president. Because people are that petty.
Now, it may well be a divorced man might have just as much trouble, but I doubt it.
Anyway, we have a bit over three weeks till the election. I’ll make one prediction: the fallout from all this weirdness is going to cling to our political landscape for months if not years.
And since Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize, it seems appropriate to end this post with…
The changes they are a-coimin’.
So The Donald was caught on tape saying something egregious about what he wants to do with women. This has caused much ire among those in his party of choice. Not most of the other egregious things he has said, alleged, alluded to, implied, or otherwise allowed to exit from his mouth. We have witnessed basically a year-long example of escalating reaction not to the content of his pronouncements but to the manner of their expression.
Paul Ryan has weighed in with an egregious bit of condescension of his own which adds to the evidence that he is a “classic” conservative who seems not to Get It.
As bookends showcasing the problem they could not be more apt.
The basic privilege the self-appointed “ruling class” has always tried to keep to itself is just this—that they are allowed, by virtue of their own money and power, to treat those not in the club any way they choose. The whole idea of equality and respect is anathema to one of the main reasons they act and think as they do. Trump is spilling the secrets of the inner sanctum by speaking the way he does. He is being supported by people who have long chafed under the requirements to matriculate from the high school locker room.
So why is what Ryan said just more of the same?
Mr. Ryan said: “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.”
Now, on its face you might see nothing wrong with that statement. But remember, this is coming from a man who has consistently opposed women’s right to self-determination where it conflicted with his conception of morality. (To be clear, he never actually said “rape is just another vector of conception.” But he made it clear that he has a moral and ethical framework which would demote women’s ability to determine life choices to secondary status in the case of unwanted pregnancy)
This suggests that he sees women as having a role to fill. A role which under certain circumstances supersedes their position as individuals.
Women are to be championed and revered…
Why? Because they can’t champion themselves? And how do you revere something without putting it in a special category? Reverence is akin to a religious appreciation. We can revere life but it becomes trickier to revere an individual without bringing to bear expectations that merit such reverence. The first—life—is a concept not a person. It’s easy to revere ideas, beliefs, works of art. These are not people, they are categories of object. People are revered only when they are removed from the daily grime of actual living. Saints are never made so until they are dead and for good reason. A person cannot—nor should—fulfill the expectations of such status. And it is not a status one seeks but one that is imposed.
Women are not objects of reverence. He contradicts himself in the next phrase, “not objectified.”
This is the problem at the center of this whole issue, which is difficult to parse for some folks.
And the reason that what Ryan is saying is not much better than what Trump says. Only different.
Trump is saying out loud what has been implicit in a certain mindset among self-styled “conservatives” for a long time. They want their privilege. They want things made available to them and denied to the general public, because these things constitute the trappings of power.
Not all of them pushing this program. Some, I suspect, are just neurotic and insecure. Trump is neither. Ryan is just shallow. But the arrogance of a Trump has found a home in the shallow waters of what has become conservative philosophy.
Other Republicans, in response to Trump’s comments, have opted for the word respect, but given the repeated, consistent assault on women’s health care options, the concerted opposition to equal rights legislation, the open misogyny toward female politicians, and the general inability to understand the driving essence of the women’s movement for, well, forever, these pronouncements carry little weight outside the fact that they fear for their privilege because a loudmouth is talking out of school. They want to impose a style of respect on women that will push the real issues back into the box wherein they’ve been residing all along. These same people have had many gracious and pleasant and approving things to say about the late Phyllis Schlafly and given her quite unvarnished statements about what she thinks women (of a certain class, of course) ought to do rather than try to live lives of personal fulfillment, I take their repudiation of Trump for what it is—an attempt to put the lid back on that box. From time to time many of them have said things about women that demonstrate a vast disconnect—lack of understanding and lack of empathy and a total disregard for women as people.
They like women to be objects of reverence. Why can’t they just climb back up on that pedestal where they “belong” and smile?
I don’t want to beat up too much on them, because I also believe that they believe they’re speaking from conscience. I just wish they had taken the trouble to examine that conscience a few decades ago, before they laid the groundwork for someone like Trump, who has yet to say one thing that has not been part of the conservative playbook since Goldwater displaced liberal Republicans and started us on this road in 1964. They only say these things in well-turned, polite, and convoluted ways so the average person won’t understand that they basically want to turn this country into a “gentlemen’s club” where they can get what they want without having to respect those who are expected to provide them their services.
I debated whether or not to say anything about Phyllis Schlalfy’s passing. I have never held her in high regard and certainly anyone who has paid the slightest attention to my writings over the past three decades should know where I stand on the issues on which she and I disagreed. Violently disagreed at times.
But as her death follows upon the heels of the canonization of Mother Theresa, I find a certain symmetry which prompts comment.
These two women shared one attribute in common that has come to define them for the ages: an obdurate dedication to a special kind of ignorance. They have become icons for people who prefer their views of how the world should be and see them as in some ways martyrs to the cause of defending beliefs that require the most tortured of logics to maintain as viable.
Both apparently took as models their own examples as standards and arguments against those they opposed. Schlafly never (she claimed) understood the feminist argument about the oppression of the patriarchy and Bojaxhiu never understood the utility of situational beneficence. Consequently both could proceed with programmatic movements that blocked progress and flew in the face of realities neither could accept as valid.
Schlafly was instrumental in blocking the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Her rhetoric before and after was stridently right wing, as if the very notion of women wanting opportunities as human beings was somehow a threat to civilization. She herself apparently never suffered resistance to anything she wanted to do. She essentially told women less privileged than herself to be satisfied with their stations in life and give up ambitions of being more than wives and mothers, even as she lived a life that was anything but an acceptance of such limitations. Her inability—or refusal—to come to terms with the fact that human beings deserve to be treated by each other as individuals cost her, but she has never once publicly acknowledged that she might be wrong.
Bojaxhiu set up shop in one of the poorest areas in the world to, ostensibly, minister to those poor. Normally we hear that and believe some form of relief of suffering is involved, but apparently not. She elevated the suffering of the dying to some form of divine gift, gave them aspirin, and prayed while they died in misery. It wasn’t lack of money, either. Her order has received many millions—which she used to open convents and wage a campaign in opposition to the one thing that might make a difference in those poor districts she held in such high esteem: birth control. Of all the things she might have chosen to name as the most significant enemy of our times, providing women, especially poor women, the means to control their fertility, reduce family size so what resources they had might go further and do more, is a perverse choice. Catholic, yes, but it’s not like other Catholics haven’t seen reality for what it is and did something—anything—that might constructively alleviate suffering. From the evidence, all she did was put a noble gloss on it and exacerbate it.
It could be argued that both were “of their times” and therefore exception should be made before too harshly assessing their legacies, but I don’t accept that. In Schlafly’s case, she was educated, moved among the best minds when she wanted to, had more than ample opportunity to understand what she was doing. It didn’t matter. She had picked a side and stuck with it, reality be damned. In Bojaxhiu’s case, the daily exposure to those she supposedly ministered to should have served to snap her out of whatever quasi-Freudian obsession she had with sex and start acting like a human being. (Unless you wish to argue that she was indeed “out of her time” and would have been right at home in the Middle Ages as a flagellant.) She was not stupid, she was the head of an international organization. She put on the sackcloth of the humble village girl with simple values, but she was anything but.
That the Church has canonized her is no surprise. In Dante’s Paradiso we meet many saints and upon reading about them and their character we begin to wonder why these people are where they are. Dante makes the case—among others—that the price of admission to this paradise is a lifetime of obsessive devotion to a view of divine truth that is essentially selfless. In other words, in the consequences of their lives, the Paradisiacs are not much different than the Infernals, other than they are selfless rather than selfish. Both share a conviction that their view of the world is right, but for very different reasons.
Of course, Dante’s Paradise is not really a place anyone rational would care to spend eternity.
That Schlafly has devoted followers is also no surprise. One of the curious similarities between her and the so-called “New Woman” of the post-liberation era is the image of someone who does it all. Wife, mother, lawyer, political organizer, mover, shaker. Whatever roadblocks might have been thrown in her way, she went around, over, or through them. If she could do it, by gum, so can anyone, and we don’t need no damn ERA to do it!
Except for the privilege. No, she wasn’t born to money. But she got the advantages of a college education at a time women weren’t going to college much. She also married money. Draw your own conclusions, but without that her later ability to do all the things she chose to do would have been absurdly more difficult. However, she has the background to appeal to the self-made, the education to talk constitutional law with the best, and the security to assert herself in ways women traditionally do not. However you want to spin it, she was privileged.
Both women offered ideologies that overlooked or flatly denied certain inconvenient realities. But they had their lives, their callings, their successes. What is this reality that makes any kind of claim on the conscience of the visionary that either was obliged to respect?