The Big Equihack Makes A Case for Regulation

Equifax, the embattled credit rating agency known for its signature Windows 95 security app, has been taking it on the chin over the past few weeks. And, fair enough, the company deserves what it’s got coming. It is a business built entirely on sneaky-beaky data diddling, a giant corporation dedicated to hoovering up every jot and tittle of your personal information and peddling it to usury merchants for eye-watering fees.

Essentially, Equifax is in the business of selling online identities, yours almost certainly among them. By some estimates, worldwide it has information on 800 million individuals and 88 million businesses stuffed into its data swag bag. What those files contain is everything you need to get a credit card, open a mortgage, and secure a loan. It probably goes without saying, but if that information falls into the hands of the iniquitous, the virtual you may be up to your neck in financial hurt. The real, you, of course, will have to deal with the consequences.

So get prepared to deal. Sometime this summer hackers swiped the personal data of 143 million people from Equifax. The company waited a month before letting on that they’d allowed just about every adult American’s online soul to be surreptitiously sucked up by dark web’s bagman. Indeed, even now Equifax doesn’t seem to be exactly clear on everything that’s gone missing, when it went missing, or where it went. On the upside, as long as you promise not to sue them they are willing to, um, not act like complete shits. Ha, ha, just kidding! You can read in-depth about their incompetence, perfidy, and rapacious contempt for consumers here, and here, and here, and just about any other media outlet in reach of the Google machine.

True, a boo-boo this big demands that there be some consequences. Someone might be exiting corporate headquarters with the boot of ignominy attached to the seat of their pants, and no doubt there will be one or two on the receiving end of a stern finger-wagging. That, though, seems about the far limit of accountability Equifax is willing to voluntarily countenance. And even the shamed executive given the old slingeroo will no doubt depart with millions in compensatory severance boodle. I suppose that will help salve the sting of accidentally helping expose the whole credit rating shootin’ match for the cesspool of consumer-screwing avarice that it is. It goes without saying that there’s little hope of a golden parachute cushioning the fall for the rest of us. In so many words, we’re being told to just flap our arms real fast and hope for the best.

As usual when corporate greed grubbers drop this sort of a manure muffin on the plates of an unsuspecting populace, there is a boost in hue and an uptick in cry about the dangers of letting all these free range corporate chiselers run wild. Dern that federal gummint, shouldn’t it have done something? You know, like, maybe, regulate them? At least a little bit? Huh, now there’s an idea.

Of course, there is a broad agreement these days that regulating free markets is a bad idea. In general, Americans are not big supporters of government regulation, and they seem to have specific objections to passing and enforcing rules of fair play on businesses. Their elected representatives are not big on the idea either. And the people who run credit rating agencies definitely give the whole concept a thumbs down. Back in June, at the exact same time hardworking cyber-thieves were starting to pump data out of Equifax like water from a fire hose, the Consumer Data Industry Association was aghast that Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-PA) hinted he might ask Congress to pass a rule or two protecting consumer privacy.

In high dudgeon they wrote him a letter pointing out that: (a) credit rating companies already were staggering under the onerous burdens of federal regulation, and (b) there was no need for any gummint regulation because of the industry’s widely recognized fervent dedication to protecting sensitive information. The CDIA noted what resolute defenders of the public trust the Equifaxes of the world were, and the “strong authentication techniques” they used to insure that “consumer disclosure is not going to the wrong person.” As they summed up, “The consumer reporting industry is adequately regulated and goes to great lengths to ensure consumer data is protected” (you can read the full letter here).

A seasoned veteran of the corporate-political interface will be able to parse those words carefully enough to extract their true meaning: “We’re lying our asses off about being over-regulated, and we don’t give a flip about who has their mitts on Joe Q. Public’s digits, but we’re richer than Croesus and want to keep it that way. So bug off. We’ll call you if we need a bailout.” Or words to that effect. In reality, the credit rating game is played with extraordinarily little public oversight, and what oversight does exist is as likely to be implemented by state governments as the feds.

Maybe the Equifax data breach will change that. Certainly there’s a lot of people charging around the public arena right now pointing out that a pretty good-sized equine just exited the barn, so maybe the federal government should do something about all those open doors. And, indeed, given that credit rating agencies deal in what amounts to our online avatars–remember, “their” product is our identities–it makes a lot of sense for government to treat them as the equivalent of a public utility. That means regulating them, really regulating them, not using the fill-in-the-blank rule book they currently operate under.

There’s some small chance this will actually happen. Free market fan boys have at least temporarily muted their assassin’s creed vows to do in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal agency that, despite the best efforts of Congress, has actually been trying to keep the gouging, duping, hood-winking and general larceny in the financial sector to a minimum. There have even been some rumbles about untying one of the CFPB’s regulatory hands in deference the degree of inconvenience the Equifax hack is visiting upon citizens.* Maybe, just maybe, the financial industry is not quite the steadfast protector of privacy it claims to be. Some in Congress seem, however reluctantly, open to the notion that companies like Equifax are more interested in profits than probity. Maybe a federal bully boy with the power to stick up for the small guy is not such a bade idea, even if it does cut a fraction of a point off the old quarterly profit report and downgrade executive bonuses from truly obscene to merely outrageous.

I wouldn’t hold your breath, though. Any such regulation is likely to give the Gummint-Bad-Bidness-Good Congressional Caucus the fantods, and those lads have patented a legislative solution that automatically dilutes any real restraint placed on Wall Street and its brood. The Great Equihack Gaffe of 2017 might raise a doubt or two about the dangers of unchecked financial finagling, but, as is almost certainly being pondered in corporate lobbying suites right now, what’s all that money for if not to calm the qualms of wavering legislators?

 

* Congress has tightly secured both of the agency’s hands behind its back back to make sure they didn’t give too much aid and comfort to predatory consumers asking awkward questions about why they had six Wells Fargo checking accounts they didn’t ask for.

Bernie’s Wishful Notion Potions

 

I’m not sure if Bernie Sanders actually graduated from the Hogwarts Academy of Political Enchantment and Necromancy, but his level of magical thinking certainly puts him in Dumbledore cogitation territory. He seems to be thoroughly convinced that he can conjure up an American Denmark out of the Republic’s potions book. Um, yeah. Good luck with that.

Now, it’s possible that Bernie actually does know the location of some secret political Platform Nine and Three Quarters, a place where a solar-powered liberal locomotive will arrive complete with an organic treats trolley, the populace will happily pile on, and from thence be steamed off to some progressive Elysium while munching fair trade chocolate frogs. That makes about as much sense as some of Bernie’s policy proposals, proposals that grown-ups who should know better are starting to take way too seriously.

Case in point is Bernie’s current drive to implement a single-payer, universal healthcare system (you can watch him giving the basic pitch here). He’s tried this several times before. He supported the 1993 American Health Security Act, which was basically state-based universal health care coverage (you can read the full text of the bill here), and he went whole hog for socialized medicine in the American Health Care Security Act, a bill he introduced into the Senate in 2013 (actually the bill got pretty watered down, but if you want to see where he was coming from you can read his original proposal here ).

None of those efforts made much noise. In between torpedoing the Clinton administration’s healthcare reform efforts and sucking the soul out of Obamacare, partisan Dementors sent Bernie’s healthcare plans off to the congressional equivalent of Azkaban. Not this time. Bernie has roughly a third of the Democrats in the Senate signing on as co-sponsors of his new bill–including pretty much everyone being seriously considered as a 2020 presidential aspirant. The bill is the Medicare for All Act, the thrust of which is to, well, put everyone on Medicare. In a nutshell, the basic idea is for all of us to have the same basic health insurance plan, which will be provided by the United States government. None of that Obamacare shilly-shally, it’s on to that geezer pleaser, the doc-for-the-vox-populi plan for the lot of us.

How will that work? How much will it cost? Who’s going to foot the bill? What about Big Pharma, Big Med, and Big Insurance, won’t they have a big problem with it? Will the GOP make some political hay out of this and might it, perchance, cause some problems for the Democrats? In order, here are the answers: dunno, dunno, dunno, affirmative-roger-bingo, and, you bet your sweet bippy.

The dunnos are standard Bernie-gram policy communication. He is not known for letting irritating practical details get in the way of forcefully advocating sweeping reform. He is super-keen on loudly insisting government do something, but whispers inaudibly about all the practical particulars necessary to transform wish into reality. Indeed, he gets kind of snippy when people pester him with vexatious queries like, “How’s that gonna that work?” In this case, the plan seems to be that Congress declares health care a human right and everyone signs up for Medicare. And then … well, something, I guess. Maybe Bernie mutters a sotto voce incantation of “wingardium leviosa”, gives a swish of one of Mr. Olivander’s best wands, and yada, yada, yada, ol’ Doc Potter is standing by to write free prescriptions for the migraine I feel coming on.

Now a single-payer system is, in theory, not a bad idea. Actually, it’s a pretty good one. It can mean everyone gets basic health care coverage, and no one gets sent to the poor house, even when the doc takes a look at those lab results and diagnoses it as a virulent case of “cha-ching!” It’s not the idea that’s bad–I’m actually down with it. Nor is it the philosophical issue Bernie-types like to bang on about. In other words, the arguments over whether health care should be a human right, a universal privilege bestowed on all by a benevolent state out of noblesse oblige, or something like tacos and underpants, a good you purchase on your lonesome without tax-backed subsidies. Who cares as long as you can get reasonable access to healthcare services without risking penury? That, said, if Bernie does get this through, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him proposing free taco trucks on every corner and nationalizing Fruit of the Loom.

The real problem is not conceptual or philosophical, but practical. In a technical sense, how do you make it happen? In a political sense, how can you make this feasible? Answering the first question means figuring out how to blow up a sixth of the American economy and radically restructure it in a way that leaves everyone with decent healthcare. That’s tough. Real tough. It’ll require pols and policy wonks to put on their big boy pants and hammer out deals with the healthcare industry that many are not going to like.   Other countries have managed it, though, so surely with a skosh of Yankee ingenuity and can-do grit we can figure something out.  I suspect an answer to the second question, though, is simply out of reach. I just don’t see how this works politically.

Let’s take just one screamingly obvious political issue this proposal creates. Roughly 150 million Americans get their health insurance through their employers. And by all that Nate Silver calls holy, they seem to like those plans. The Bernie Bros—and remember, this now includes a big chunk of supposedly grownup Democratic senators—seem to think you can go out on the campaign trail and tell these people, “we’ve got this ace idea to take away your healthcare plans and put you all on Medicare! But don’t worry, your healthcare will be better. Or not. We’ll get back to you on that. But you definitely will pay less. Unless you pay more. Anyway, it’s a fabbo idea, so remember to vote for us!”

There is no doubt that huge numbers of sitting legislators are willing to go out into the 2018 midterms and hit that message hard, loud and relentlessly. And they are almost all Republicans. From a GOP perspective, this won’t cure the electoral damage of the Great Obamacare Repeal and Replace Fiasco and Masacree of 2017. But it might make it sting a bit less, or at least provide a reasonable campaign trail dodge to the effect that Republicans aren’t the only ones proposing to blow up the healthcare system without carefully thinking through details.

Let’s face it, Bernie hasn’t exactly been good for the Democratic Party. He winged Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign pretty good, and looks set to put a lesser, but still potentially painful, burn on the Democrats with this healthcare push. But then again, I can’t fathom why anyone would think he might be good for the Democratic Party because, well, he’s not a Democrat. Granted, he plays one when it suits the purpose (Politifact says, at best, he’s an unenthusiastic,  reluctant and inconstant Democrat ). Near as I can figure, he’s an independent/Socialist who doesn’t like political parties, but is happy to take advantage of them. He likes to sit outside the system and rail at it and demand it should change. The problem is that while he’s pretty good at saying what he wants changed, he’s lousy at providing any realistic path to getting there. He just seems to think it will happen if only enough people want it to. What’s worrisome is that people who should know better are starting to take that whole idea seriously.

The click-your-heels-and-wish-real-hard school of politics, though, rarely achieves much. And until an Owl comes down your chimney with Medicare enrollment papers, I wouldn’t put too much faith in Bernie’s magical thinking.

The Art of the Squeal

People frequently and foolishly assume that the president of the United States holds enough power to get pretty much anything they want done. Presidents, presidential aspirants, and certainly a current 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue leaseholder I could name, frequently and foolishly encourage such bosh. Presidential power in fact is a surprisingly limited–and limiting–thing.

No one knew this better than Harry S. Truman, who famously grumbled that, “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them.” Truman predicted that his successor Dwight Eisenhower was going to have a rough adjustment period. Top ranking generals in the Army can act like real authoritarians. Presidents, not so much. “He’ll sit here and say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ Truman snarkily predicted. “And nothing will get done.”

Truman’s words struck a particular chord with Richard Neustadt, who at the time (early 1950s) was a freshly minted Harvard PhD hanging around Truman’s White House as a special assistant. Neustadt was a political scientist who was unlike most of his academic tribe in that he spent a considerable amount of time interacting with actual politicians.1 Neustadt went on to become famous among my polyester-loving people (political scientists are called Das Sansabelt Volk in German) for writing the definitive book on presidential power. With the typical wit and wordplay that political scientists are known for, Neustadt titled his magnum opus, wait for it, Presidential Power.2

Joking aside, Neustadt’s book really is the definitive study of the subject and its conclusions about the actual power of the presidency shade astonishingly close to Truman’s cavils about the constraints of the office. When you get right down to it, the president’s formal powers are (at least in theory) pretty limited. He really hasn’t got the political juice to just make government do what he wants it to. He can’t make law and he can’t raise money. He has to get Congress to do that. He can veto things. But that just means admitting Congress wouldn’t do what he wanted. He can sign Executive Orders, which makes for a cool photo op, but is weak tea compared to actual legislation.

Neustadt argued that the real power of the presidency rested not on the formal tools of the office, but on three intangibles associated with whatever individual happened to occupy it: public esteem, professional reputation, and, above all, the ability to persuade. In short, the true source of a president’s influence is his (or her) deal-making skills. Powerful presidents are those that successfully nudge, nag or sway Congress into doing what they want them to do. To do that it helps to be popular with the public, it helps to have professional respect, but bottom line is you gotta be able to cut a deal.

Donald John Trump clearly lacks two of the three. His approval rating is lower than squid pee and rapidly diffusing into the salty currents of public opinion. His professional esteem basically rests on reality show star power—he rates, like, seven Lindsay Lohans on the TMZ Index of Sideshow Celebrity. His cred as some sort of business whiz, on the other hand, is pretty much PR and pixie dust. Between Trump University, Trump Steaks, Playboy videos, wrestling appearances, and the epilogue of his business books invariably concluding in Chapter 11, the president’s record as some sort of business titan covers more blemishes than Clearasil. Making a deal, though, that’s something he is supposed to be good at.

Except maybe he isn’t. Thus far, git-‘er-done deal making has not been a hallmark of the Trump administration. Deals have either never been made (health care), never got off the ground (making Mexico pay for that wall), or seem to exist completely in the never-never (NAFTA renegotiations). The central strategy of Trump’s deal making approach seems to involve royally pissing off all the important players he needs at the bargaining table, and heaping scorn on those who won’t do what he wants. And, well, maybe that works in the reality-TV-porno-business world. Democratic politics, on the other hand, is less the art of the deal than the art of the meal. It’s all about making sure you can get half a loaf. Trump seems to think the goal is to swipe the entire thing and gorge on it in front of the starving eyes of your vanquished foe.

Trump’s approach to deal making was in full head-scratching mode this week as he actually did cut a deal. With Democrats. The losers who left the bargaining table rattleboned and deprived of their much needed share of whole grain political carbohydrates were Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Trump blindsided them—and even members of his own cabinet—by agreeing to a Democratic plan to attach hurricane relief spending to a short-term (three month) increase in the debt ceiling. To put it mildly, that’s not what the GOP wanted. Ryan looked understandably constipated coming out of the meeting. He was so tight-lipped and monosyllabic he clearly was suffering from irritable vowel syndrome. McConnell looked even worse. He was so thin-lipped his incisors had practically disappeared up his nostrils, the tips just peeking out like some sort of angry vampire boogers.

In the short term this gives Trump, with some degree of credibility, the right to claim he cut a deal by shoving aside the status quo way of doing things. In other words, just the sort of shake-it-up, non-politician hoi polloi hogwash he was elected on. In the long-term it almost certainly reduces his ability, perhaps catastrophically, to make future deals with Congress. Even with his own party. Why would Ryan and McConnell trust Trump, let alone stick their necks out to carry his water when he’s just shown he’s perfectly willing to hold their heads under it? Sure, it’s plenty amusing to watch Democrats and committed anti-Trumpers like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi give props to the president—their words of praise mumbled like they were still dealing with the after-effects of a particularly nasty dental procedure. But as Trump has spent eight months heaping infamy and opprobrium on both their heads, they represent the minority party in congress, and, oh yeah, their voter base is seething with virulent anti-Donny sentiment, it’s hard to see this as a long-term deal making partnership.

The bottom line is that less than a year into his term, Trump has managed to seriously corrode his working relationship with just about everyone on Capitol Hill. It’s truly an awe-invoking accomplishment. And it’s seriously going to crimp his ability to cut deals. If that last remaining leg of the power source gives, Trump may prove to be a very weak president indeed. That’s what Truman and Neustadt would surely predict. This week’s gobsmacking smoochie with the Dems may simply be Trump hankering for a win at any price to prop up his fading art-of-the deal cred. If Congress decides to go its own way, though, Trump, like Truman, will find that it can make a president scream. So, no one should be surprised if Congress is about to give the president a lesson in the art of the squeal.

  1. I’m not joking. One of the things that most surprised me about becoming a professional student of politics is the relatively low levels of interaction between this set of academics and government officials. As a political reporter I’d spent years of my working life in the company of pols. I’ve met scads of political scientists who–I kid you not–have spent less time interacting with the humans who actually practice politics than I did in any randomly chosen week, and certainly any month, of my career as a journalist. It’s a weird world I inhabit.
  2. In later editions he jazzed it up a bit, using the snappier title Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. You can buy a copy here. Ignore my snotty editorializing about beige language—his main thesis holds up six decades on and is well worth the read.

Hurricane Hypocrisy Makes Landfall

 

 

When it rains it pours, unless it’s Texas. These days the Lone Star state is dealing with H2O in such brobdingnagian portions they’re figuring out ways to contain five barrels of water in a ten gallon hat. Never mind the impossibility of that Tardis-like volume-to-space ratio. It’s Texas. If it means helping a neighbor in need, they’ll get it done.

Yet while the good people of the Gulf Coast deal with disaster of Hurricane Harvey with a lot of laudable can-do grit and community comity, there’s a forecast of a political storm front blowing in, bringing sturm, drang, and the possibility of a category four casuistry cyclone. Yes it’s kind of depressing that politics has to stick its nose into all the come-together spirit many have displayed in a very difficult week. Big scale natural disasters, though, inevitably raise a holler for help from the gummint. And some of those now doing the hollering are increasing the chances political precipitation to better than 90 percent.

Actually, make it a 100 percent. There’s no doubt and virtually no disagreement that the federal government needs to get in there and help with the recovery efforts. The feds spent $60 billion-plus on relief efforts following Hurricane Sandy in 2013. Patching things up after Harvey’s devastation is likely to put at least as much of a dent in Uncle Sam’s wallet, but this is one of those big spending bills likely to have bipartisan support. Most people will not begrudge the federal government spending their hard earned tax dollars on rebuilding lives and communities walloped by a Revelations-level meteorological malevolency. You’d have to be a pretty unfeeling bastard to think otherwise.

Or the Texas Republican congressional delegation. A surprisingly large number of this crew (about 30) actually voted against the major relief package for Hurricane Sandy (the Disaster Appropriations Relief Act of 2013), including the state’s two current senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. There were two basic justifications given for this opposition. First, it’s a lot of money and maybe the federal government should figure out somewhere else to whack out a few tens of billions in the name of prudent book balancing. Second, there was a lot of bean counting ballyhooing that the Sandy relief bill was so packed with pork that adding a slice of lettuce and a tomato damn near made it a BLT. Cruz, especially, did a lot of puffing and pontificating about this latter point.

There are two big objections to these objections. To take the latter point first, the bill was not by any stretch of the imagination the bag of pork rinds and bacon bits Cruz made it out to be (he claimed two-thirds of it was not related to Sandy). The Congressional Research Service looked into this matter in some detail and found the bill was almost entirely focused on addressing the needs created by Sandy (read the report for yourself here). More generally, while certain conservatives were scuffing their cowboy boots and indulging in some lengthy green-shading and grand standing, victims of Hurricane Sandy were left swinging in the wind waiting for their government to help. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—a fellow conservative Republican—had a well-documented hissy over Congress’ reluctance to unchain its checkbook. For once, Christie deserved some sympathy.

As Cruz is finding out, principled objections to federal government over-spending and over-reach get overcome pretty damn quickly when the ruinous climatic calamity is slamming into your own state. I seriously doubt Sens. Cruz and Cornyn will respond to any fiduciary nitpicking over a Texas relief package with a principled conservative, “sure, let’s take an extra month or two and make sure we’re not spending a cent more than we need to.” Well, they won’t if their constituents have any say in the matter.

This is the problem with drinking the hard line, government-is-always-bad Kool Aid the Cruz’s and Cornyn’s flood politics with. Just as there no atheists in foxholes, hard core don’t-tread-on-me states’ rights types get pretty scarce on the ground when it’s fifteen feet under water. Some situations call for massive acts of collective action and the institution most capable of providing it is the government. When such situations occur, the old Reagan joke that the most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” just isn’t funny.  It’s not the free market that gets people out of a disaster zone.

The government responds to a calamity like Harvey by throwing resources at the problems of disaster victims—everything from local government first responders, to state troopers, to the feds with the Coast Guard, FEMA, and the Corps of Engineers. After the storm subsides, the federal gummint will be there in the form of the Federal Housing Administration, the Small Business Administration, special programs set up by the Internal Revenue Service to help with tax relief, the Department of Labor to help with income and job assistance, and a bunch of other programs and agencies mandated to help out (BTW if you’re in a Harvey-affected area and need of information on any of this, look here).

Here’s how a free market responds to something like Harvey: it figures out a way to make money off disaster victims. This is widely condemned as price gouging—and it’s happening right now in Texas. But what is currently jacking up the prices of a case of bottle water to $99, and will no doubt have sheet rock going for similar inflated prices within two months, is the exact same free market mechanism people like Cruz and Cornyn say the federal government should never interfere with. The market is simply allocating resources by obeying the law of supply and demand. Limited supply plus high demand equals gas going for, if some reports are accurate, twenty bucks a gallon. It’s unfair, it’s unjust and it’s taking advantage of people who can ill afford the hit. Well, yeah. That’s sort of how Wall Street works, too.

The point is not that markets are always bad and government is always good, or vice versa. That sort of either-or thinking is (a) dumb, and (b) sooner or later makes hypocrites of people on both sides of the divide. One of the few good things to come from Harvey is seeing people like Sen. Cruz recognize, however grudgingly, that the federal government isn’t simply the instrument of some freedom-killing Satan he routinely makes it out to be. Properly organized and funded, it’s also a pretty good mechanism to help out tons of people in very real need. Hopefully both Texas senators will remember this the next time a disaster hits a state that is not their own.

DONATE AND HELP: Dealing with something like Harvey is a collective effort, and I don’t just mean the folks on the ground and the rest of us acting collectively through government. A lot of good organizations are pitching in.  You can find a list of reputable (i.e. no scams) groups helping out Harvey victims here. Please consider donating.


The Fight That Drives Old Dixie’s Hounds

Those who fail to learn history may or may not be condemned to repeat it, but it’s a dead certainty that those who won’t let it go are hell bent on re-living it. And there seems to be a lot of these types about. People who seem more interested in yearning for the mistakes of the past rather than learning from them.

The increasingly acrimonious and belligerent argy-bargy over removing Confederate statues is a current case in point. One side argues all those stone figurines of bewhiskered white guys just glorify racists and traitors. They argue for pitching ‘em off their pedestals post haste in order to strike a blow for group harmony, not to mention delivering some long overdue just deserts. The other side argues they symbolize a proud and honorable heritage and that it’s unfair to treat them as burrs under the saddle of contemporary racial comity. Carting off a marble bust of Robert E. Lee to some darkened hall of shame might bathe some people in warm schadenfreude tinglies, but it’ll do diddly to actually combat racism in the here and now.

Both sides have a point, though one side has more of a point than the other. All those Confederate heroes were traitors to the Republic and their scores on any valid scale of prejudicial attitudes would park them in the category of “bald ass racist”. These, by the way, are objective assessments. They committed the textbook definition of treason in taking up arms against the United States of America, so in straight-up legal terms they are in Benedict Arnold territory. And their acts of treason were committed in the service of preserving an institution that kept millions of African-Americans in bondage. If that ain’t eye-popping levels of racism in action, I don’t have the words to describe what is.

And save me the states’ rights, lost cause, plucky-underdogs-fighting-for-independence-and-freedom, and all that blah-blah antebellum exculpatory blabber and balderdash. I have no doubt some actually believe such stuff and twaddle, but there’s simply no controversy among serious historians of the period that preservation of slavery was the primary war aim motivating the Confederacy. If you want to pick a bone with that analysis, take it up with historian Ty Seidule, who made a viral video explaining the point in detail (see the video here). Seidule, by the way, is not some prog-prof fulminating in an Ivory Tower tilting to the left. He’s a colonel in the United States Army, teaches at West Point, and is a proud graduate of Washington and Lee University, the Lee bit being a nod to Robert E., who ran the place for years after retiring from his distinguished career of kicking Yankee ass.

Which gets us to those hell bent on scrubbing any whiff of respectable memorialization from all historical figures who are not up to 21st Century standards of PC snuff. Sympathy for this perspective, at least on the Confederate front, is more than understandable, and I’ve got a pretty big dose of it myself. After all, according to a Wikipedia page devoted to the subject (see here), there are more than 1,500 public memorials to the Confederacy. That seems a bit overboard. I get that the Confederates were mostly out-manned, outgunned, out-supplied, but very rarely out-fought or out-generaled by the North. And, sure, they look good in those spiffy Gilbert and Sullivan uniforms. Plus they had super-cool names—Jeb Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, John Bell Hood, and Beauregard Jubal Sweaty-Breeches Julep. Okay, I made the last one up. Still, you can understand that viewed from a suitable distance this crowd of drawlers and brawlers has a certain cavalier, romantic appeal.

But, jeez, do they really deserve the copious multitudes of pigeon-crap catchers currently serving as rallying points for yet another spasm of conflict over race relations? These fellows damn near blew up the Republic over slavery. Being stylish dressers and alarmingly competent in the military arts should carry, at best, a pinch, a smidge, a mote, a skosh, of compensatory historical kudos. Certainly not freaking hundreds of statues, bridges, street names, and even, for cripes sake, an entire mountain (see here). Someone clearly needed a sense of proportion (not to mention propriety) when all this was going on.

Here’s the thing, though. Some of those monuments really can tell us something important about heritage, though not necessarily in the way assumed by diehard Dixie defenders. Some Confederate combatants not only defended the indefensible and repudiated and visited violence on the values of the Republic. To their eternal shame they turned their army gray for bed sheets (the Ku Klux Klan was founded by Confederate veterans) and egged on heirs who would carry on a legacy of appalling racial discrimination through Jim Crow. Others, though, did not. They recognized at least in some dim sense their own moral and political failings and those of the cause they fought for. After wading through the bloody muck and coming out the other side, they wanted others to let go of the animosities that motivated the conflict that consumed their lives.

So, weird as it sounds, the heritage passed on by the likes Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet and Nathan Bedford Forrest might still be worth paying attention to, even though their degrees of moral and political repentance varied quite a bit. Longstreet kind of went whole hog in bird flipping the racist cause he once fought for—post-war he is perhaps best known for leading a multi-racial militia to do battle with violent white supremacists in New Orleans.1 Lee clearly struggled over the issues of secession and slavery, even if in the moment of truth he failed the moral test on both counts. Still, after the war he opposed memorials to the Confederacy and generally encouraged people to put the past behind them and seemed to genuinely want the United States to move on. Forrest was a brilliant and ruthless cavalry commander during the war. Before the war he’d been, among other things, a slave trader. After, he was so fast to join the KKK his membership number probably consisted of a single digit. Yet towards the end of his life, even Forrest gave a much commented on conciliatory speech where he assured a black audience that, “I am with you in heart and hand,” which, no surprise, made him persona non grata in certain Sons of the South circles.

The point is, these guys clearly knew and accepted that they and their cause had lost. And, however imperfectly, they pointed the way forward from the terrible conflict in which they had so effectively participated. That way was in letting go of the attitudes that propped up slavery by force of arms and perpetuated racial divisions by the power of racial prejudice. Let’s not get too teary-eyed here–those guys were products of their time and a long, long way from true egalitarians. Still, it is not a small step from high-level Confederate combatant to getting on board with good riddance to slavery and some measured acceptance of the need for racial harmony. Yeah, they didn’t get far down the old multi-racial kumbayah path, but keep in mind they started from way, way, way back.

So if there’s any heritage worth holding onto from the Lees and the Longstreets and the Forrests, it’s that.  Not the celebration of their military victories, but the acceptance of their defeat and the recognition of its consequences. That doesn’t mean forgetting their history. But surely it means letting go of the animus that all too often motivated it. Remembering history is important. Resurrecting the divisions that often drove it is dangerous. Regardless of whether this or that statue remains or disappears, hopefully we can learn to let go of what, 150 years after the Civil War, should have been discarded a long, long time ago.

 

  1. Longstreet, by the way, is unusual among top Confederate generals in that he never had an actual statue or monument erected in his honor. This seems strange as he was one of Lee’s most able and trusted commanders, and by any measure was a hero of the Confederate cause. Longstreet’s post-war support of racial harmony is the most likely explanation for why his mug isn’t found staring down at us from cenotaph central. Longstreet’s omission from all the Confederate statutory sprinkled around like confetti makes perfect sense if these are viewed as monuments to Jim Crow rather than to heroes of the lost cause.

Shriek Bile: How Not to Handle Nazis

Hillary Clinton, the pant-suited succubus of the alt-right, caught a lot of deserved flak for describing half of Donald Trump’s supporters as a basket of deplorables, a bushel of the craven and condemnable not fit for polite democratic company. The implied fifty-fifty probability that they were a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, an Islamaphobe, or some other trafficker of tolerance-abhorrence, understandably ticked off pretty much one hundred percent of Trump backers.

And, fair enough, Clinton’s proportions were way off. Roughly 63 million people cast a ballot for Trump and surely there’s no way half of them—31.5 million Americans—are the sort of –ists and –obes that get the Southern Poverty Law Center’s dander up. Still, that basket clearly wasn’t completely empty. And however small the actual fraction, they are starting to give the president and his supporters a collective whiff of dishonor and censure that is positively sulfurous.

Last weekend’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville and the events since certainly made that pong considerably harder to ignore. Those guys in the Tiki torch parade at the Unite the Right rally were Nazis. That’s not hyperbole. They were not femi-Nazis, not PC-Nazis, not I-disagree-but-can’t-be-bothered-to-argue-so-I’m-calling-you-a-Nazi Nazis. They were real deal neo-fascists, swastika-waving Hitler fanboys publically advocating the most odious tenets of National Socialism. These were not just testosterone-addled youngsters throwing sieg heil salutes in some rebels-flouting-our-flaws prank aimed at getting up the snoots of liberal elites. They gave every indication of genuine commitment to the racist blood and soil twaddle spewing out their cake holes. They espouse a political creed—openly racist and religiously intolerant–that truly could only be embraced by, well, deplorables.

Which is why it’s so gobsmackingly surreal that the president could not quite seem to grasp the moral, let alone the political, calculus of Charlottesville. The Cliff’s Notes version of the White House response to this political gasoline fire reads like this:  Well, sure, Nazis and the bedsheet boogeymen of the Ku Klux Klan are bad, but so are the “alt-left” who showed up to protest them. Nazis and anti-Nazis, it’s a potato, potahto sort of deal. Intended or not, Trump left the impression that he saw people like Heather Heyer as somehow analogous to the grub-stage Gruppenfuhrer who killed her for the crime of standing up to racists. In the context of the American political system, that’s going to be hard to top as an act of political self-immolation.

Even with full acknowledgement of the ugly state of our polarized politics, Americans are, surely, pretty united on the proposition that Nazis are bad news, that people who march in solidarity with them are not “good people,” and that just because you show up to register disgust at fascism does not mean  automatically descending into some comparable moral sink hole. A list of luminaries in the president’s own party have forcefully made exactly that point. John McCain and Marco Rubio pulled no punches.  Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions—a proud son of a Confederate state and no stranger to his own race controversies—hesitated not a bit in condemning what happened to Heyer as “domestic terrorism.

They were all rightly praised across the political spectrum for unhesitatingly sticking up for basic decency and American values. Public plaudits for the president were mostly limited to, well, deplorables. David Duke, for example. When not stocking up at a Bed, Bath and Beyond white sale for KKK sartorial purposes, Duke is a perennial pusher of a political philosophy that might be called a dread, wrath and beyond white fail. This is a guy who has made a career out of trafficking in racial purity gutter-sweepings of the lowest order. His take on the president’s handling of Charlottesville? He praised his “honesty & courage.” The Daily Stormer, leading lights of the shame-scream media, also weighed in with an appreciative smoochie. The Nazis basically came out and said we know the president of the United States is on our side.

That is kind of hard to process. Maybe Trump really isn’t a not-so-closet booster of white nationalism, but at a minimum he’s such a cack-handed political amateur he’s conveying exactly that impression to a large section of American society. Don’t take my word for it. Conservatives as disparate as Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks have lit into Trump not only for tone deafness, but moral abdication. Business leaders scrambled to cut their ties with the Trump administration. Leaders of the United States military took the extraordinary step of taking a pointed, public swipe at their commander in chief. Even people on Fox & Friends were calling Trump “morally bankrupt.” If Trump’s lost Fox & Friends (motto: We Don’t Just Do Trump Fancy, but Trump Sycophancy) you know things are bad for the White House.

This also does not reflect well on the voters who put him there. Principled motives for supporting Trump electorally I can buy. Trying to shift blame for the consequences of that election, well, not so much. The what-about-the-lefty-bully-boys-and-don’t-forget-Hillary’s-email response to white nationalism elbowing its way into mainstream political debate is pretty lame. Did I mention the Nazis? Yes, the left also has knuckleheads with an iffy commitment to respecting the government’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. But they’re not pushing a doctrine of a racial superiority, and they are most definitely not publicly gloating that such a repugnant agenda is getting a nod and wink from the most powerful office holder on the planet. These days, Nazis are.

Now that truly is deplorable.

 

The New Face of Immigration

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Carl Spaatz, 1 and Chester Nimitz were, respectively, Army, Air Force and Navy commanders who collectively represented America’s secret advantage in World War Two. In taking on dedicated bully boys like the Nazis, America didn’t simply make better tanks, planes and warships than the Germans. America was also in the business of making better Germans than the Germans.

That has always been a particular genius of the United States, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. Give us your tired, your poor, your strange accents, funny names, weird food and odd fashions. Into the melting pot they go, where strivers of all stripes can find nourishment for their dreams with extra helpings of individual freedom, that not-so-secret ingredient of American dynamism. The resulting cultural stew might rearrange consonants and vowels here and there (it was originally Eisenhauer), but it produces hearty crossbreeds of invention and tradition, hybrids socially engineered to kick ass and take names. And I’m not just talking about a few World War Two muckety mucks laying the lumber to cousins in the old country.  American immigrants are as varied as Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Charlie Chaplin, Henry Kissinger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Eddie Van Halen. The co-founder of Google is an immigrant (Sergey Brin), as is the founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla (Elon Musk).

The result of all this cultural mixing and matching is, at least as the tale gets told, the best of the new and the old. French toast, spaghetti and meatballs, and German chocolate cake are actually as American as apple pie, culinary staples inspired by the old world but given life in the new. That urge to take where we’re from and turn it into something bigger and better is in our genes. Come to think of it, it’s also in our jeans (Levi Strauss was born in Germany). America, as it repeatedly tells itself, is a nation of immigrants, a place where citizenship is derived from a commitment to shared values rather than blood or tan lines.

As a nation of immigrants, then, it’s somewhat baffling that we are increasingly, well, anti-immigrant. I’m not just talking about illegal immigration. That’s never been particularly popular with the American public, even if those attitudes have been kind of schizophrenic (“Deport the illegals! But not until they’ve finished the harvest and roofed my house!”). I’m talking about legal immigration which, at least in some quarters, is increasingly viewed as getting too much of a not-so-good thing. Give or take, about 35 percent of Americans want legal immigration levels decreased, though like much else in the commonweal the aggregate number belies deep partisan differences. Among Republican ranks it’s more like 60 percent.

In truth, the Republic has always had a muddled attitude towards the mixed lot that washed up on its shores over the years. Homegrown Anglo-Yanks weren’t too wild about the Irish and Italians who streamed in during the 19th and 20th Century (come to think of it, the Irish and Italians didn’t like each other much either). For decades, mainline Protestants weren’t too fond of Catholics coming in, and neither Protestants nor Catholics were particularly wild about letting in too many Jews.

The disparate European tribe that collectively thinks of itself as representing America did learn to occasionally put aside their traditional enmities and prejudices and forge common ground on immigration policy. They united to stick it to the Chinese immigrants in the old West, and closed ranks to chuck Japanese immigrants into concentration camps during World War II (though later they did generously allow the Nisei to be drafted into racially segregated combat units that were packed off to fight the relatives in Italy and Germany). More recently immigrants from South America and pretty much any place with a surfeit of minarets in its religious architecture get the Irish/Italian/Chinese/Japanese treatment.

All the E pluribus unum rah-rah, in other words, hides a long history of a firm commitment to a WASP-y unum but a lot of waffling and occasional full-on abandonment of any technicolor pluribus. And that’s without taking into consideration what might euphemistically be termed coercive immigration (i.e. importing slaves) and enforced emigration (i.e. exporting Native Americans to places they didn’t want to go). So no one should be super-shocked that the federal government is getting some traction with its plans to limit membership in club America.

What is kind of shocking, though, is just how tight those limits are. If the Trump administration gets its way, there will not only be fewer Muslims and people with non-white skin tones getting past Lady Liberty’s velvet rope. There will be fewer people like me. And as I’m so WASP-y I could practically unfurl wings out of my lats and drop a stinger out my butt, I’m pretty sure there will be fewer people like you too. What’s being kicked around is a points-based merit system, where you get points for having particular skills, qualifications, or a walloping pile of boodle. To qualify for immigration, you have to get a certain number of points. Time magazine mocked up a quiz  so you can figure out if you’d have what it takes to get a shot at being an American. You can take the quiz here. It’s kind of depressing. I didn’t make the cut—too old, my advanced degree is in the wrong field, and I suffer from an un-American deficiency of lucre. All that could be offset by athletic or intellectual glory—you get points for having an Olympic medal and/or a Nobel Prize—but all I had was my second-string high school football career and a college GPA that made my mom proud.

My failure to cut the mustard as a worthy candidate for immigration to America surprised me because, well, I am an immigrant to America. From a one percenter perspective, I’ll allow that in retrospect I might not have been the best investment of a golden ticket to American citizenship. I haven’t won any prestigious awards, or started a Fortune 500 company. I haven’t even got my own Wikipedia entry. All I’ve done is work hard, served in the military, paid my taxes, supported my community, embraced the values of the Constitution, and raised a couple of All-American kids socialized to repeat those same sorts of behaviors. You know, the sort of things the vast majority of US immigrants and their offspring, which is to say the vast majority of Americans, have always done. Clearly the government is considering raising the bar on us, so I’m glad we slackers got in before the rules tightened up.

If the government is going this route, though, in the name of truth in advertising they need to update the poem parked at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Emma Lazarus’ scribbling about, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” clearly needs a 21st Century edit. Maybe something like: Give me your rich, your Olympians/your huddled Nobel laureates yearning for venture capital/The rest of you losers don’t bother applying.

Doesn’t sound very American. But then again neither do the new immigration proposals.

  1. Spaatz sounds more Dutch than German, but that was because he added an extra “a” right before World War II. He was born a Spatz, which means sparrow in German. Didn’t matter much because his friends called him “Tooey” and to pretty much else he was “sir” or “general.” Regardless, as commander of the Eighth Air Force he was responsible for bombing the snot out big chunks of Europe.

The GOP Is Starting to Get Tired of All The Winning

 

Reince Priebus, the recently canned whipping boy of the Trump administration, says things these days look pretty rosy for the Republican Party. “Winning is what we were supposed to do, and we won. That’s the job of the Republican Party. It’s in the best shape it’s been in since 1928.”

And, in sense, Priebus is absolutely right. In my professional parish, a political party is defined as an organization dedicated to running candidates for office under its own label. If a party’s primary purpose is to contest elections, then it follows that the obvious yardstick of its success is how many elections it wins. As the Republicans won pretty much everything last go around, Priebus’ claim that things are just tickety boo for the GOP has a reasonable portion of quantitative veracity. In other words, contrary to opinions from other quarters, Priebus is not completely full of crap.

Here’s the thing, though. If a party wins enough of those elections to gain control of the government it is expected to, well, govern. Professional observers of government such as myself are realistic enough to recognize and accept that the primary driver of any political party is the pursuit of power. Once a party gains power, however, voters expect them to do something with it. You know, like all the stuff they promised to do if they ever got into the driver’s seat.

And, at least thus far, Republicans under Donald Trump are proving themselves spectacularly incapable of governing. Don’t take my word for it.  Lots of conservative Republicans are saying exactly the same thing (you can read what a bunch of them say on this matter here). Republican Senator Jeff Flake makes the argument in painful detail. Neo-con Bill Kristol says more or less the same thing. Some of the lads over at the National Review are not only saying the GOP can’t get things done, they are skating mightily close to openly calling Trump nuts and the Republicans nuttier for making him the face of the party’s governing brand. The collective point of all this concerned conservative navel gazing seems to be a growing sense of buyer’s remorse. The gist is basically that putting the pursuit of power above everything else—principles, policy, pride, values, facts, social cohesion, adult supervision—was a Faustian bargain that turned out to be a very bad deal. Indeed, those are pretty much the exact words Flake uses. If this is what prominent conservatives are saying, you can imagine the high-pitched wails of Republican incompetence being raised on the left.

Priebus, though, isn’t having any regrets or second guessing. As head of the Republican National Committee he became the face of the party’s embrace of Trump and his promised brand of governance, and backed that up by becoming, however briefly, White House chief of staff. For his trouble he was relived of his dignity and of any illusion that Trump would magically mature into a more conventional statesman once in office. It was still all worth it, Priebus argues, because of what the Trump administration has accomplished. What are those accomplishments? According to Priebus, “a conservative Supreme Court justice, regulatory reform, and a healthy economy.”

Uh-huh. As far as anyone can tell the healthy economy is just a continuation of its pre-Trump trajectory. For certain, in the past six months the federal government has passed no policy or program that could conceivably have had any meaningful impact on GDP, unemployment or similar indexes of economic health. The regulatory reform basically amounts to a bunch of executive orders, which the president is extremely fond of signing … and which the next Democratic president will almost certainly cancel with an equal and opposite executive order. Fair enough, though, the appointment of Neil Gorsuch was, no question, a big conservative win.

Balanced against all this winning, though, is quite a bit of losing. Most prominently is the gobsmacking self-immolation of the GOP’s healthcare plans, the inability of the majority party to deliver on the most prominent and central legislative goal it has sought and promised for nearly a decade. Trump also seems to be losing Congress more generally. Congress passed sanctions against Russia against the president’s wishes and groups of legislators are tentatively starting to hash out bipartisan health care options without his support or blessing.  Indeed, members of his own party increasingly are giving signs they are simply willing to ignore what the president wants, and given that his poll numbers have fallen lower than coalmine canaries, you can hardly blame them. Even the Gorsuch victory might exact a steep, albeit long-term, price. Getting that win required torpedoing Merrick Garland’s nomination on pretty shaky constitutional grounds, torching a set of senatorial norms, and putting up with the unsettling sound of seriously steamed Democrats constantly sharpening knives behind closed doors. When that go around comes around, and this being politics it surely will, Dems will have no compunction about wielding their obsessively stropped blades to slice off a vengeful pound or two of GOP flesh.

The growing internecine GOP catfights over the party’s plans, not to mention the increasing questions from within its own ranks of its capability to carry them out, are not good news for those of us who want government to work regardless of who is in charge of it. The chances seem slim that the Republican Party is going to improve on its lamentable six-month record as a mostly incompetent governing force. Priebus’ assessment of necessary sacrifices yielding a string of sterling successes is less a case of looking at the world with rose colored glasses than suffering the political equivalent of hysterical blindness. And maybe that’s not surprising. Over the past year he has repeatedly shown himself to be a pollyannaish Trump/party hybrid, a Toyota Priebus that turned out to get lousy mileage. He lasted only six months in service to House Trump, and spent most of that playing Theon Greyjoy to the president’s Ramsey Bolton in the White House’s revolving Game of Drones.

Still, Priebus’ historical analogy for the GOP may touch closer to reality than he realizes. The Republican Party was sitting pretty in 1928. It controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, and was confident that its pro-business agenda would deliver the goods for the citizenry and keep it in power. Things didn’t quite work out that way. A year later the economy tanked, and the Republican president (Herbert Hoover) and the GOP congressional majorities came to be viewed by the populace as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. In 1932 FDR got elected and, with a couple of odd exceptions here and there, the Democratic Party basically enjoyed sixty years of electoral dominance.

If it’s really 1928 all over again, maybe the Republican Party should stop all the Priebus-like counting of its wins and get its act together. If it doesn’t, it’s going to get tired of all that winning much sooner than later.

GOPolarization

Politics these days is mostly a case of united be damned, divided we’ll brawl. Citizens of the Republic, pollsters and pundits reliably inform us, are in a partisan blood feud of Hatfield and McCoy proportions. The shamans of my own tribe—academics poring over the data-equivalent of chicken guts—say the portents of this growing polarization are not good. Red states and blue states are having a punch up, it’s beating the nation black and blue, and all those who care deeply about the preservation of liberal democracy either seeing red or feeling blue. Apparently, we’re having a bit of a blue period.

And, let’s face it, there’s more than a smidgen of truth to this. The left-right divide has gotten so bad that politics is giving race a run as the great social divider. These days, people are more opposed to an ideological interloper marrying into the family than someone with a skin tone containing an unacceptable dose of melatonin. And forget any hopeful half-glass message there. It’s not like we finally achieved post-racial myopia and got a prescription giving us 20-20 clarity on our political differences. To shift the metaphor from the visual to the aural, all that dog whistling to white anxiety coming from high government places can be heard loud and clear by everyone.

While the reality of political polarization is pretty depressing in its insistence on the anti-Rodney King no-we-can’t-all-get-along message, if you look at numbers long enough you start to realize there is an imbalance to this division. The popular image is of a roughly fifty-fifty split between liberals/Democrats and conservative/Republicans. And that is just not true. The reality of political polarization in the United States is that on one side is a rump of the GOP-affiliated tribe. And on the other is pretty much everyone else.

That everyone else is not just liberals and Democrats. Our picture of the self-assortment of the populace into different political tribes is a bit fuzzy, with the numbers shifting a bit depending on polling source and whether the question is asking about party identification or ideological leaning. And while civilians – and increasingly, people who should know better — often use ideology and partisanship synonymously, in reality they are not the same thing. Roughly speaking, about a third of American citizens view themselves as conservative, about a quarter as liberals, meaning the plurality—better than 40 percent—view themselves as in-the-middle moderates. The partisan differences inexactly parallel those numbers, with more of an even split between Dems, Republicans and independents. Still, if you think of the country as roughly a third Republican/conservative, a third liberal/Democrat, and a third whose political philosophy is basically a-pox-on-all-you-jagoffs, you wouldn’t exactly be right, but you wouldn’t be too wrong either.

If we take that as a rough and ready way to apportion the political perspectives of the population, there is indeed deepening chasm between them, but not really into the camps the press portrays. It’s not the right against the left with miffed moderates in the middle holding their noses, leaning one way or the other and splitting the difference. In reality, political polarization on many of the questions that divide is made up of two lopsided groups. One is a mashup of diehard Trump fanboys, anti-intellectual conservatives and a large pinch of increasingly queasy GOP party loyalists. And on the other side, there’s everyone else.

This split is most obvious in the approval numbers for President Trump. According to poll aggregation sites like fivethirtyeight.com and pollingreport.com, roughly 80 percent of Republicans give him a thumbs up. The real story, though, is in the disapproval numbers. Democrats disapprove of Trump in eye wateringly high numbers—around 90 percent in some polls—and independents are not far behind at around 70 percent disapproval. That’s why Trump is the most unpopular president since the advent of modern public polling. His party’s base supports him. Nobody else does.

This helps explain why the GOP is having such a rough time getting anything done even though they have unified control of government. What was supposed to be the GOP’s signature legislative accomplishment—repealing and replacing Obamacare—has been harder than advertised at least in part because there’s no public support for it outside of Republican echo chambers. The numbers on this policy basically reflect the president’s standing with the American public: Democrats oppose the GOP’s healthcare plan by 90 percent and Independents by 70 percent. So on healthcare, Republicans (just) want the GOP to repeal Obamacare. Everyone else does not.

The bottom line is that public support for the policy agenda being pursued by the governing party consists of, give or take, 30 to 40 percent of voters. Sixty to 70 percent oppose it—there’s just not that many left in the undecided middle anymore. So we have this weird situation where the government just elected to run a liberal democracy is actively ignoring the wishes of the commonweal. Rather than government by the people and for the people, its government telling the people to go suck eggs unless they vote in Republican primaries. From a democratic-politics-as-usual perspective, the politically astute play for the GOP—shoot, the only reasonably smart political play—would be to adjust the policy to get more public support. The federal government’s leaders either flat out refuse to do that (Trump) or for a host of reasons can’t do that (Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell).

That’s not a prescription for a healthy or stable liberal democracy. Which is why government nerds of all political leanings are getting the fantods. A democratic government can get by without majority support if a reasonable chunk of the populace basically couldn’t care less. If a minority fervently wants government to do something and the majority response consists of “meh” and a bit of shoulder shrugging, that minority might get what it wants without risking a political bloodbath. On the other hand, a democratic government vigorously pursuing an agenda that is actively opposed by a majority of the people it purportedly represents is, by definition, in trouble. And that’s the state the Republican’s find themselves in right now: they are trying to wield their government majority on behalf of a popular minority against the wishes of the popular majority.

So, the situation is not that our divided house cannot stand. It’s that a majority increasingly can’t stand the people dividing the house. That is certainly a recipe for divisive and polarized politics and the nastiness is likely to be alleviated by one of two things. Either the Republican leadership reaches for the center, or it the center crushes the GOP in future elections. Given the Trump administration’s track record during its first six months, I’d rate the latter more likely than the former. Until then, though, the fight goes on.

The Senate is in The House

A little known fact about polymath fussbudget and Founding Father pin-up boy Thomas Jefferson is that he apparently had appalling table manners. And thank goodness he did. His infra dig conduct while strapping on the old feedbag gave us a timeless lesson about why the federal government does what it does. While breakfasting with George Washington, Jefferson deliberately slopped his cup of coffee into a saucer, and that indecorous act of beverage redistribution is now immortalized for making an important point about the United States government that has particular contemporary resonance.1

In addition to liberally splashing his Folgers around the available crockery, Jefferson was pressing Washington about why the Constitutional Convention had opted for a bi-cameral legislature. Tommy-boy had not been at the big bang Philadelphia event—he was off in France putting the moves on Sally Hemings and practicing a little light diplomacy—and he couldn’t see the reason behind a two house Congress. Surely such redundancy just made it harder for the government to get anything done?

In response Washington said, “Why did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer before drinking?” Which was a good thing. If he had actually said what he was most likely thinking—“if that latte stain doesn’t come out, you cheese eating Lothario, you’ll be getting the bill for a new table cloth”—the story wouldn’t be nearly as educational.

Anyway, thinking quick on his feet, Jefferson said he dumped his coffee into his saucer, “To cool it, my throat is not made of brass.”

“Even so,” said Washington. “We pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

What Washington was trying to get across was that the Senate and the House were designed to serve different purposes. The House, with its short terms and smaller districts, was all about capturing whatever issue of the day had the hoi polloi on the boil.  And whatever that was, knowing the plebs it was probably not fully thought through and likely to scald the commonweal right on the butt cheeks if rapidly translated into law.

So into the senatorial saucer it went, where legislators more insulated from the heat of immediate political concerns could let it cool and fish out the bits that represented a democratic choking hazard. Senators had longer terms (six years instead of four) and, remember, at the time were not popularly elected, but chosen by state legislatures.  So they didn’t have to worry much about voters. Plus, at least as originally conceived, the Senate was to be largely populated by aristos and toffs, the sort of people who were not likely to let grubby concerns like partisan politics stand before what was good for the social order.

And, even with the advent of popular elections in the Senate, that’s more or less how it’s worked. The House has tended to be more partisan and more in a hurry to get things done. The Senate moves at a statelier pace and is less likely to hew the partisan line. These days, though, not so much. The institutional differences that marked the very different political cultures—and purposes—of the House and the Senate are eroding fast. The Senate has basically turned itself into an over-caffeinated partisan dogs’ breakfast. It’s less interested in cooling the ideological coffee than in gulping down the Kool Aid. It is trying its hardest to become the House.

While there’s plenty of blame to go around for this sorry state of affairs, the biggest portion properly belongs on the plate of GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Which is odd, because he seems, or at least seemed, to have a pretty good grasp of the Senate’s unique and important role in American governance. If allowed to work as designed, McConnell once said, the Senate’s central job is fundamentally different from that of the House. The House pushes the majority party agenda and to hell with the loser weenies who disagree with it. The Senate’s job, on the other hand, is to help insure laws are acceptable (if not enthusiastically supported) across the entire political spectrum. As McConnell put it, if the Senate’s majority party acted in a similar fashion to that of the House—basically employing the institution as “an assembly line for one party’s partisan legislative agenda”—it would undermine the notion of consensual rule and promote “instability and strife.”

Huh. So clearly he knew what he was doing when he turned the Senate in a partisan assembly line of gridlock and dysfunction. During the Obama administration he spent eight years conducting a gobsmackingly cynical campaign to prevent the president to get anything done. His avowed primary goal during the first of those four years was to make Obama a one-term president. Getting anything done—even if it served Republican, or heavens to Betsy, even national interests—took second place. McConnell’s then counterpart in the House, GOP Speaker John Beohner, said his caucus would do everything to stop the policy agenda Obama was elected on, the plan being “to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” In other words, the battle cry was (and still is), “death to bipartisanship.”

You expect that sort of stuff from the House, though. What was unusual was that McConnell did the same thing in the Senate. And he did it well. And more or less continued doing it when the GOP finally won everything in 2016. Recently McConnell had the Senate writing laws to radically restructure a sixth of the nation’s economy (i.e. the recently deceased healthcare plan) in secret. No public hearings. No Congressional Budget Office scoring. Not a lot of input even from his Republican colleagues. In short, there was no senatorial saucer cooling on the biggest issue Congress handled in the first six months of the Trump presidency. Instead, the McConnell-led Senate basically dumped gasoline on a forest fire. And got badly burned when the central legislative goal of the Republican Party for the past decade went up in smoke.

There are some small signs that McConnell is rethinking his arsonist-as-chamber-leader approach, but it’s not clear there’s any temperate middle ground left to go back to. The Democrats clearly have taken a lesson from McConnell’s time as a minority leader. The basic strategy they seem to be following is this: Screw up as much as possible, blame the other side, and take responsibility for nothing. And, hey, why not. It worked for McConnell and the GOP.

The problem is that strategy is fundamentally predicated on destroying the Senate’s traditional institutional role as the partisan surge protector of the Republic. This is why filibusters are going out the window, budget reconciliation rules are being turned into partisan clubs, routine and uncontroversial nominations are getting mugged by parliamentary process, and public hearings are avoided unless they provide some political gain for the party with the power to call them. This sort of stuff, adjusted for differing rules and roles, has always happened in the House. And that’s pretty much what the Senate is becoming—a chamber focused on short term partisan point scoring. Which is disturbing, because there is no third chamber to rein in the worst of the political excess. We’re at a point where the Senate is in the House.

That is really bad news, and even way back when, George Washington knew it. At the conclusion of that long-ago breakfast, Jefferson once more pressed Washington for a justification for the Senate.

“Well, why have you put my breakfast sausage in your pocket,” said Washington.

“Um, I’m reserving something to nibble on later,” said Jefferson, obviously wondering if he could also get the leftover scones into his waistcoat.

“Just so. And that’s why we have a Senate. To save our bacon.”

Okay, I can’t verify those exact words, but I’m pretty sure I got the gist. Maybe somebody familiar with Washington should invite Mitch McConnell over for breakfast.

 

  1. Or maybe not. This story, though widely repeated, is likely apocryphal.