Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Voters Had A Jefferson. It’s Giving Me A Hamilton

Thomas Jefferson was super-smart and all, but honestly, that guy had his head so far up his ass his wig powder must have doubled as dentifrice. I say this as a nostalgic fanboy, a special place kept in my heart for his declaration that, “the sapling of liberty periodically needs irrigating with blood, preferably with the miracle grow gore sourced from the plebs and not from compost-spouting, Monticello-building aristos like me.”  Well, maybe not an exact quote, but the gist is accurate enough.


Jefferson is sort of like the Sex Pistols. You know, the band that not only scared the crap out of your parents, but just because you bought their albums and cranked them up to 11 they made you, a pimply teenage oik of no particular worth or provenance, kind of scary too. You might have to make a generational adjustment on the band to make that analogy work. So feel free to insert Eminem or the Satanic Sheep Shaggers of Doom or whatever auditory toxin leaks out of ear buds on college quads these days. The labeling and melodious specifics are ultimately irrelevant. As long as it intimidates middle-aged college profs into taking the long way to the latte bar it’s golden. You get the idea. Immature proto-adults like stuff that gives grownups the vapors, because that gets the grownups’ attention.

And that’s Jefferson. He gives Founding Father cred to people power, periodic revolution, and the general idea that having the lower orders drop kick the elites in the nads every now and then is a salutary tonic for the republic. It reminds everyone who’s really in charge. A little mob-led communal bloodletting on the republican oak, or at least an angry communal widdle into the potted plant of the commonweal, clears the air. Exactly how periodically flicking all these body fluids around the arboretum of democracy achieves this is beyond me, so don’t ask. The point is, Jefferson says it is okay for the sassy masses to have a good hissy now and then. Scares the grownups.

Well, the electorate clearly just had a Jefferson and it’s certainly got the grownups’ attention. The accession of the heir with hair to the highest office has the sober and staid guardians of keeping the machine running panicked. “This isn’t going to end well,” you can hear them warning in strangled castrati sopranos, nether regions still smarting from having the hoi polloi punt their daddy tackle right over their polling forecasts. What makes it all particularly painful for that crowd is that the ultimate republican grownup assured us this sort of thing would, if not never happen, at least be kept to the absolute bare minimum.

In contrast to Jefferson, James Madison was decidedly leery about treating the people as responsible sovereigns. Sure, he thought they should hold the ultimate lock box to power, but that was only because he couldn’t figure out a better place to stash the stuff. And if the people had the power, he was dead set on making sure they’d have to work damn hard to actually use it.  As he famously put it in Federalist No. 10, “Listen, I love the people too, but criminy, they’re suckers for all sorts of shinola trafficked by ripesucks and mountebanks. And, let’s face it, half of them are wackaloons anyway. If they ask for access to the vault, for chrissake let’s only give them half the combination.  We don’t want that lot getting in there without adult supervision.” Well, now that I think of it, I might have lifted that quote from Federalist No. 51.slide2

Regardless, Madison’s point was you couldn’t trust the people any more than you could trust the elites. You had to break up power like a jigsaw puzzle. The idea was that anyone really trying to be in charge was perennially going to be at least one piece short of a full picture. Oh, the proles might get into a tizz and catapult a few angry kindergartners into the House. No matter, the Senate will make sure that after their temper tantrums they’d eat their republican veggies and take legislative naps at the appropriate times. And if the children broke into the Senate, no matter, the prez will be there, like some sort of national junior high principal armed with tardy slip vetoes to keep them in line. And if even the Electoral College somehow falls to populist plunder, no worries, we’ve got the strict grannies of the Supreme Court to keep the kiddies in line. The only way the machine really breaks down is if the bully boys take over all of these institutions and, seriously, how likely is that?

The current reply, as grownups speaking through clenched teeth and in tones still an octave high might put it: “A sight more likely than we thought.” We have the semi-extraordinary situation of a president winning on a technicality (popular vote loser, that’s, like, bigly yuge, believe me), heading a party that actually took a legislative electoral hit (Republican lost seats in Congress), and between them suddenly unleashing a motley group of populist piffle-mongers to plunder as much power in all three branches as they can grab. It’s like Johnny Rotten getting license to sit as speaker in Parliament, ceding the floor only to the MPs gobbing in the aisles and sporting knitting needles through their noses. Jefferson might approve, but dignified it ain’t, and the needle on the RPM counter above Madison’s grave must be buried deep into the red.

Somewhere Alexander Hamilton is probably watching all this with an I-told-you-so smirk. slide3Hamilton made a career out of driving both Jefferson and Madison batty with his barely concealed distaste for tugging a forelock at popular sovereignty. Hamilton famously summed up his philosophy of republican governance by saying that, “The people should just shut the hell up and let those of us who actually know what they’re doing get on with it.” Well, I might be paraphrasing a bit, but you get the idea.  Hamilton more or less only wanted the grownups to govern.

And who were the grownups? Good question. Hamilton was pretty picky about designating grownups. The party he helped birth, the Federalist Party, basically went extinct because they didn’t want to let anyone into their club who had even the faintest whiff of infantile populism about them. Problem was, even back then, the stink of the masses smelt more like roses the closer they got to the ballot box. This was a problem for deep thinking scolds like Hamilton and John Adams who were deeply committed to representative democracy and representative democratic principles, but infinitely regretted that such commitments meant having to deal with, ugh, voters. The electorate, they firmly believed, could too easily be gulled into giving full-throated support to bluffers and fantasists who, if they were actually given power, would drop all of us two fathoms full into the shite.

Hamilton never did manage to square the democracy-run-by-elites circle, so power was connected to the people by the institutional gears, switches, and pulleys designed by Madison. And that Rubik’s cube of a transmission has kept the republic more or less humming along in drive ever since. The problem is, every once in a while, the people get tempted to chuck a wrench in there when they really, really want a change in direction. Of course, blowing up your transmission is not something the adults recommend as the best means to achieve a right or left turn, but what can the adults do? Madison might have written the operating manual, but everyone knows Jefferson was okay with tossing that over your shoulder and just giving everything a really good bash now and then. And the voters just had a major Jefferson. It’s giving the grownups a serious case of the Hamiltons.


Now What?

Liberals have stopped burning down artisanal muffin shops in Portland, so that’s good. Conservatives have stopped ranting about rigged ballots and revolution and are now calling for everyone to respect the democratic process, so that’s good.

So now what?

Well, damned if I know. We political scientists were so wrong for so long about the excrement packed foot long of the 2016 election that we’ve been struck dumb. Just kidding. Along with the rest of the hot air brigade, we’ve taken a breath, slugged back a fortifying Chablis or two, and are once again firing up the prognostication engines. This time we’re driving ourselves in into the future with the intent of returning with accurate reports of what American looks like under the Donald.

Not going to believe a word of these forecasts of our political future? Nah, me neither.  Past performance predicts piss poor prognostication. Which is just an alliterative way of saying my crowd’s recent record on reading tea leaves is so abjectly poor that our “political expertise” deserves those qualifying quotation marks until further notice.

The cold crumb of comfort in all this is that as soothsayers we, the polisciguys of all genders and persuasions, were no worse than anyone else. Pundits and pollsters sure didn’t see this coming. Neither did grownups in the Republican, let alone Democratic, parties. Even the Trumpkin inner-circle was shocked—just look at their faces as the election was called and the stunned scramble immediately after to soften, abandon or outright pull a 180 on just about every sacred and unbreakable pledge/charge made on the campaign trail. The only people really convinced the Bouffant Buffoon was going to win were the ignorant masses. Turns out there is a lot of them, they know more than the rest of us, and, no matter the rapier sting of our polls, analysis and witty put downs, it’s us who got exposed as the buffoons.  Ouchy mama, it stings being on the pointy end of all that schadenfreude.

There’s no getting around it: we’ve been outed as out of touch, our collective professional willies left flapping flaccidly in the political winds while the Trump trolls snap pictures and gleefully distribute them, Anthony Wiener-like, on Facebook and Snapchat feeds across the land. Apologies for any discomfort caused by such images, but I’m trying to get hip to the new crotch-fixated, super-coarsened nature of political discourse in the era of Donald. I can’t quite bring myself to follow our president-elect and go full genital profanity yet, but give him a couple of months on the job and I’ll probably get there.

Anyway, given that our election “expertise” has been found as anything but, is there anything we can offer from our collective knowledge—and we do have tons of the stuff packed in various cupboards up here in the ivory tower—that you can put some faith in? Well, yeah, I think there are some certainties you can take from us, or at least from me, about what is going to happen now. Here’s three:

One: Republicans. Control. Everything. You might be saying, “Well, no duh Sergeant Obvious.” Don’t think I didn’t notice the demotion, but I accept getting busted from a captain to a ranker as a fair punishment for recent performance. Stay with me, though. Everyone is paying attention to the federal government: the GOP has the White House, full control of Congress, and the Supreme Court will be safely conservative as soon as the Donald’s finished playing eenie-meenie-miney-moe with the short list of gay hating gun lovers with law degrees provided by the Federalist Society. What’s getting less attention in all the oh-my-gawd-he-actually-won hoo-hah is the Republican butt kicking of Democrats in the states. Republicans now control 68 of the 98 partisan legislatures and have a big majority in the technically non-partisan 99th chamber (Nebraska). They control the legislature and governor’s mansion in two dozen states, while the Democrats have that level of control in only seven. This is a really, really big deal.

Why’s this so important? Because what many people do not fully grasp is that the federal government relies heavily on the states to implement domestic policy. If state governments balk at Uncle Sam’s marching orders—and they often do—it can be extremely hard for the feds to fully implement a policy agenda regardless of how badly they want it. This is partly what happened to Obamacare, i.e. GOP controlled states resisted, evaded, and litigated a key part of the president’s domestic agenda into near paralysis. With the exception of a very few handful of states where liberals and Democrats can fight a meaningful rearguard against a Trump/Republican agenda, that sort of friction in the political system is mostly gone. Maybe you believe Gov. Jerry Brown out in California can fight a national Republican policy firestorm armed with not much more than a bucket full of his own disappointed tears. Me, not so much.

This is hard to over-state—in contemporary politics, it is extremely rare for one of the major parties to have this level of absolute dominance over the political system. So whatever happens now—good, bad or indifferent—is on the GOP. Doesn’t matter if the people actually voted for it (and based on the popular vote, they didn’t), what the GOP wants it’s gonna get.  Don’t believe the “none of this really makes any difference” skeptics. The cynicism merchants might sing a different tune if they lose their health insurance and can’t buy veggies at any price because half the agricultural labor force has been rounded up by immigration enforcement. The bottom line is that as long as the constitutional niceties are observed, for the foreseeable future if the Republican Party really, truly wants it, it’s going from a gleam in Paul Ryan’s eye to your living room pronto. Could they really privatize Medicare and Social Security, deport millions and hand out tax cuts for all (well, all rich people)? Well, yeah, probably …. if they really want to. Do they, though? Well, I guess we’re gonna find out.

Two. We’re going to stay mad at each other. Yeah, Clinton and Obama have called for unity and acted with grace, and the late night John Oliver/Seth Meyer crowd have surrendered with as much honor and dignity as they can. The Donald has stopped, at least for now, fire hosing insults on everyone who doesn’t support him and called for some togetherness. Nate Silver has disappeared back into the data cave with pledges of tweaking the magic polling algorithms. That’s all good. I wouldn’t get the idea that the lefties are going to respectfully fall in line with new order, though. And to conservatives who are calling for “butt hurt liberals” (quote direct from my Facebook feed) to put aside past divisions and respectfully heed the calls to come together for love of country, keep in mind those liberals have eight years of your own example to follow. And in case you forgot, that includes birther and he’s-a-Muslim fiction peddling, “you lie” violators of basic norms of political comity, vague threats of armed revolution, and entire media operations dedicated to fulminating against the White House occupant and keeping opposition to same stoked into a froth of spitting mad anger.

In many instances this was a sorry and shameful record that corroded basic values of civility in dealing with political differences. If the lefties want a crack at indulging in that sort of unhinged cathartic rage, you’ve certainly set the standard. I’m guessing, though, that they won’t go down that road, at least not as far. American lefties won’t deal with their inchoate anger quite like conservatives. They are less likely to deal with the gut punch of political defeat by buying assault rifles and prepping for the Republic’s downfall, and more likely to face stress and disappointment head on with a hot yoga class and a double chamomile tea. But they’re pissed and they’re smart and they’re deadly serious about defending groups that are vulnerable and discriminated against (caveat: the white working class is mostly exempted from this earth mother embrace of the downtrodden for reasons I’ve never been able to puzzle out). The bottom line is the chances of the conservative movement getting a kumbaya pass from the lefties based on the election outcome, especially when the lefty candidate got more votes, is zilch. Just ain’t gonna happen. So, four more years of bitch slapping ideological division for us. Yay.

Three. This election was so shocking it’s almost certainly going to jolt some people into taking actions they weren’t remotely contemplating a week or two ago. For example, back in the day I used to earn my crust writing snarky political columns for newspapers (for any youngsters landing here because of mistaken key words fed into the Google machine, newspapers are collections of professionally edited and fact checked reports written on butcher paper, updated daily and delivered to your doorstep—yeah, I know imagine that). I gave all that up to become an academic 20 years ago and haven’t indulged in such low and vulgar habits since. I dedicated myself to the pursuit of empiricism, knowledge, and educating young minds about the complex machinery of the Republic and how to operate it. Fat lot of good any of that did—near as I can tell, Ted Nugent groping his junk at a recent political rally has had at least as much impact on citizenship, civility and (ahem) informed debate as my two decades of dedicated civics instruction. So, screw it. I know nobody missed me, and there are even fewer who noticed my absence who could possibly care less about my return. No matter. Like a reformed nicotine fiend driven to sucking on his first ciggy in forever because of a traumatic experience, I can’t help myself. I’m back.