Category Archives: National Politics

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

A Free Press Is Not A Fair Press

Al Franken, Minnesota’s junior senator and the single biggest giggle getter in the United States government,1 had a hard first campaign for office. His winning margin was a couple of hundred votes and what with recounts and lawsuits, and more lawsuits, and, yep, more lawsuits, it was eight months after the election before he actually took the oath of office.

Before that happy ending Franken had to deal with a lot of tough media coverage. Not only was he labelled a joke candidate—and not just because he was a professional comedian and satirist–he was on the receiving end of some pretty nasty press. An article he’d written for Playboy got dredged up, put through media rinse, and “pornographer” became the syntactic caboose on sentences mentioning his name. It also turned out that at some point he’d paid taxes to the wrong state, which meant he hadn’t paid taxes to the right state, and, as you might guess, it was the non-payment that got the headlines.

The media mud bath had Franken feeling pretty low and sorry for himself, so he wrote to a big political figure who had his own massive set of less than flattering press clippings. That guy was Al Gore, the candidate most Americans supported for president in 2000 but lost because of the fiddle-the-books accounting of the Electoral College (sound familiar?). Franken figured Gore would be sympathetic and could maybe give a few tips on how to deal with a media environment that could eat a reputation alive. Here’s Gore’s three word answer:

“Suck it up.”

Every elected official—and one in particular—could profit from that advice. President Donald Trump, to put it mildly, is not sucking it up. He less bears the slings and arrows of the free press than questions the whole concept of “free”. He has bashed news coverage and news outlets he doesn’t like as “fake”, has openly mocked a disabled reporter, tweeted a kind of weird and creepy video of him body slamming someone with a CNN logo for a head, called one journalist “dumb as a rock” and described a TV talk show host as “bleeding from a facelift”. His administration’s relationship with the press is rapidly becoming, not just adversarial, but unabashedly hostile.

There’s no better evidence for this than Trumps recent tirade against the American media, made on foreign soil no less. Part of that included this quote: “What we want to see in the United States is honest, beautiful, free, but honest press. We want to see a fair press, that’s a very important thing.” Trump sought sympathy on this point from Vladimir Putin, who was happy to oblige. Let’s hope Putin wasn’t offering any pointers on what to actually do about reporters and their pesky questions. Russian journalists critical of Putin have a suspiciously high mortality rate.

It might be good if someone reminded the president of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. It says nothing about an “honest” or “beautiful” press, and says not a jot about being “fair”. It says Congress shall make no law prohibiting the freedom of the press. Period. That’s all that a functioning democracy requires and all the U.S. Constitution demands. Not a fair press. Not an objective press. And certainly not a beautiful press. Just free. The press needs to be free to cover government as it sees fit, without government interference or direction. And if the government and its officials do not like what the free press reports? Tough noogies.

Donald Trump genuinely doesn’t seem to get this, or how dangerous it is to suggest that things should be otherwise. There’s no question that the media is not being nice to Trump. That’s not their job. Fox News wasn’t nice to Obama. The Washington Post could be pretty hard on Dubya. Pretty much the whole DC press corps piled on Bill Clinton when it turned out he was getting his corn nibbled by a White House intern in the Oval Office. The press isn’t nice to, well, lots of politicians. Ask Richard Nixon. Gary Hart. Mark Foley. Larry Craig. The Keating Five. Marc Sanford. Rod Blagojevich. And a gagillion others. Ask Hillary Clinton if she thought the press coverage of her email inclinations was “fair”, “honest” or “beautiful.”

Here’s a small sampling of some of the less than flattering things the press corps thought to make national news about Obama: he was not born in the United States, he was “the most ignorant president in our history”, and he was the “founder of ISIS.” Trump should recognize all of those not fair, not beautiful, and certainly not honest claims. After all, Trump himself made them and didn’t seem too upset that the national media megaphoned them to the moon. The problem only seems to be when he’s on the receiving end.

A free press, no doubt, can get pretty ugly. Is sure as shooting can be pretty unfair. But what’s the alternative? Letting the government and its representatives bring the press to heel might make for more “beautiful” coverage of the powerful, but that’s not what a democracy needs. Democracy needs the press to be a watchdog with teeth. Anyone who steps into the electoral arena needs to recognize they might get bitten in the ass—justifiably or not—and needs to accept that’s just part of the gig. It’s the price of keeping the press free, and democracy rarely survives without a free press.

Most pols, of course, get this. They recognize the singular importance of First Amendment freedoms and their necessity to democracy, even if they aren’t happy with the result a lot of time. Most elected officials—believe me, I used to be a political reporter—get ticked off at the press and think it’s unfair. Most elected officials—certainly none I’ve ever been personally or professionally acquainted with—would never stoop use the power of their office to wage petty feuds with journalists or media outlets, much less engage in a systematic campaign force the news to give them better coverage. .

Because most elected officials are grownups most of them, quite properly, follow Al Gore’s advice. Donald Trump should too. You hold the most powerful office on the planet. People are not going to like everything (or even much of anything) you do. The bad stuff will be covered by the media. A lot. What’s the best response to that?

Suck. It. Up.

1.You might know him better as Stuart Smalley or the one-man mobile uplink character from his 15 years on Saturday Night Live, or from one of shoot-milk-out-your-nose funny books like Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. I guess having a 30-year career in comedy obviously gives you a pretty big leg up in being king of the yuks in the political world, but it also helps that pretty much no other politician is funny.


The GOP’s Preexisting Condition

 

It is not true that the preamble of the Senate Republican health care plan consists solely of a villainous mustache twirl. Nor does it conclude with an evil cackle. In between, though, the bill is cartoonishly mean spirited. Here’s the short version: It proposes chucking millions of poor people off of their healthcare plans while providing a massive tax break for the rich. It does raise the question of who, exactly, Mitch McConnell had in that secret lair writing this thing.  Dick Dastardly and Gargamel, maybe?

Enough of McConnell’s own troops blanched at the bill’s kid show villainy that a vote planned for this week was immediately punted to sometime else. After months of secret confabs and assurances of a bigger-er and better-er healthcare plan, the Senate Republicans basically said screw it and belly flopped into the same steaming pile of political doo-doo their House colleagues just perfumed themselves with. Whatever the ultimate fate of healthcare reform in this Congress, both chambers have now made one thing crystal clear: Despite years of high-horsing on the issue, the Republican Party doesn’t have a freakin’ clue about what it should do about healthcare. It is pretty unanimous in proclaiming that Obamacare must go. But as lots of people like lots of parts of Obamacare–no preexisting conditions, keeping kids on parental plans, and retaining Medicaid expansion—making it go without ticking off a lot of people is getting increasingly hard.

What congressional Republicans are trying to do doesn’t make a whole lot of political sense. The basic task they’ve set for themselves is to replace an increasingly popular program with something that is definitely different, but tries to do the same thing, at least enough so that people won’t notice the new plan leaves the elderly, the infirm and the poor less well-off while benefiting the wealthy.  Hmm. Good luck threading that needle. Thus far, the strategy of repeal and replace advocates basically boils down to promising moonbeams and bubble love while delivering not just tough medicine, but not much medicine at all. The GOP rhetorically favors what it legislatively opposes. It is entirely against Obamacare, but is for its central policy objectives. It is against people losing coverage, but crafts legislation guaranteeing that they will. It promises a better plan, which is so bad that it doesn’t want anyone to read it. How the heck did the Republican Party managed to paint itself into such a ridiculous corner?

Well, here’s the scoop. It’s no secret that the Republican Party doesn’t like Obamacare. What seems to have gotten lost in all the through-the-looking-glass world of healthcare politics is that the Democratic Party didn’t like it much either. If you actually want to understand the risible, farcical state of healthcare politics in the United States, that’s a critical and often overlooked fact. The fight over Obamacare is not, as it is so often portrayed, a battle between the left and the right. It’s the left trying to get the right to take yes for an answer, while the right absolutely refuses and instead insists on going through with an epic self-inflicted ass whooping.

What the Democrats really wanted was not Obamacare. What they wanted (and still want), was a universal, single-payer system. In other words, something where you’d be dunned a payroll tax which would support a sort of Medicare for everyone program. Most other industrialized democracies have some version of this. Yet back in 2009/10, even in the warm after-glow of their freshly minted congressional majorities, Dems knew they were never going to get what they wanted. Single-payer smacked of socialized healthcare, which guaranteed full-throated Republican opposition and made the politics, at best, tricky. But single-payer also threatened the interests of a lot pretty powerful groups—insurance companies, for-profit hospitals, swaths of healthcare professionals—who saw that approach as diminishing their livelihoods, or even extinguishing them entirely. That made the politics not just tricky, but pretty much impossible.

So back in 2009 the Dems controlled Congress and the White House—just like Republicans do now—and they wanted to do something about healthcare. They especially wanted to do something about the millions of Americans who had no coverage at all, but their preferred policy, a single-payer system predicated on compulsory social insurance payments, was a non-starter. So what Plan B that might actually be feasible? What the Dems hit on was, wait for it, a Republican plan. That became what we know as Obamacare. It’s true. The basic ideas behind Obamacare had been floated for decades by the GOP. Back in the 1970s the Nixon administration tried to push a program that looks very much like Obamacare. In the 1990s a Senate plan was backed by a who’s who of Republican heavy hitters that, among other things, proposed individual mandates, insurance markets, subsidies for those who couldn’t afford premiums, and a ban on preexisting condition exemptions. In 2006 Massachusetts actually adopted a state-level forerunner of Obamacare, requiring all its citizens to purchase health care, providing subsidies for those who couldn’t afford coverage, and mandating employer provide plans. The governor who championed it was Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican Party presidential nominee.

All the stuff that the Obamacare repeal and replace squad has railed against for years – the individual mandate, a massive expansion of the federal Medicaid program, scads of government dough to subsidize insurance premiums – are mostly Republican ideas. Don’t take my word for it. Fox News said more or less the same thing. For Democrats Plan B was largely Republican Plan A. The Dems tried to shoehorn something in between those two points on the not entirely nutso assumption it provided a shot at substantive bipartisan reform.

Didn’t work out that way, did it? The Republican Party was all for its ideas unless Democrats—especially Obama–were also for them. They sure as heck weren’t taking yes for an answer from that crowd. So the GOP took powder, had a hissy, and, pretty cynically, went after the major legislative achievement of Obama’s first term with spectacular alternative-facts like Sarah Palin death panel fairy tales.

Completely cooked up horror stories aside, the truth is there’s plenty to criticize about Obamacare. Even for its supporters it has always been viewed as more of a least bad feasible option rather than an end all and be all. But it’s hard to make any improvements if one side resolutely insists the entire thing reads like the script of Omen III, even if that same side wrote most of the script. And that’s pretty much how the GOP got itself in the fix it is in. It hasn’t got any better ideas than Obamacare because Obamacare was its best healthcare idea. This whole wave-the-bloody-shirt, anti-Obamacare crusade has, no doubt, been politically useful, but it also means the Republican Party has spent the better part of a decade knocking the stuffing out of its own thoughts and theories on healthcare policy.

It’s slowly seems to be dawning on GOP leaders (President Trump excepted) that it might not have been such a good idea to make its most promising healthcare policy proposals politically toxic. They have screamed long and loud that Obamacare is a disaster and given a chance they’d prove they can do better. That got them out of the political wilderness. But now they are out of ideas.

They may also find themselves out of luck. The standard GOP policy fallback—whatever the problem is, cut taxes—is not going to work here. The Republican Party had a good political run by demonizing Obamacare. That’s about to end because the electorate called its bluff and said, “okay you win, whaddaya you got?” The answer they’ve come up with–a waffle between warmed over Obamacare and Dickensian-levels of cold-heartedness—is not exactly what the doctor ordered.

Whatever Happened to Conservatism?

William F. Buckley is rightly remembered for his witty prolixity, a certain ability to enliven political discourse by unzipping the Oxford English Dictionary’s big boy pants and letting fly an epic stream of loquacity. Buckley often spritzed this legendary lexical incontinence over various angry sparks of right-wing nut jobbery, a deliberate effort to dampen the influence of dogma drones and conspiracy whackos threatening to hijack conservatism and spirit it off to cuckoo-ville.

While the primary target of his verbal strafing undoubtedly was the political left, he remains an instructive character for contemporary politics exactly because of his consistent willingness to take on his own side.  Buckley arguably did more than any other single individual to shape the modern conservative movement, to supply its cerebral ballast, to trial balloon its more popular tenets, and he certainly provided the campaign’s most influential megaphone (he founded the National Review). The ascension of Ronald Reagan and the subsequent mainstreaming of conservatism as a political force was built in no small part on the decades of preparatory work undertaken by Buckley.

Part of that labor was a conscious and ongoing effort to save conservatism from the worst instincts of its own allies. The National Review for decades was the outlet of conservative thought. As editor Buckley was the pilot in conservatism’s cockpit and he had definite ideas about approving the passenger manifest. He excommunicated Ayn Rand, arguing that her “hard, schematic, implacable, unyielding dogmatism” was not just intrinsically objectionable, but incompatible with conservatism. He chased out the John Birch Society crowd by publicly pointing out they were all at least two beers short of a six-pack. Buckley’s basic case against the Birchers was that trafficking in nutty conspiracy theories and interpreting your own subjective wannabes as objective fact is no basis for a sustainable political movement. He described Robert Welch, co-founder of the John Birch Society, as having “a very special set of views which reality rejects.”*

As a conservative, Buckley instinctively sought to defend the status quo rather than advocate change, but he was curious about the world, had a healthy respect for facts and intellectual inquiry, and was willing to change his mind if persuaded of the case to do so. He once faced down a group of moral majority flap and doodle mongers (Rev. Jerry Falwell among them) incensed at his forceful advocacy for drug legalization. He justified himself thus to his skeptical conservative audience:  “It is a sovereign responsibility of rational people to take empirical data into the general reckoning. I was against the position I am now taking until I became convinced by the data that it was a futile position” (you can see a video clip here). Buckley never lost an abiding conviction that a “conservative seeks to be grounded in reality.

Yeah, I wonder what happened to that. I’m not sure when conservatism decided to stop questioning itself, became so quick to get the wobbles in the face of data and facts, and got so willing to abandon not just intellectual honesty but intellectual curiosity. But it has. Don’t take my word for it, plenty of conservatives are saying more or less the same thing. David Brooks. Charlie Sykes. George Will. Bill Kristol. The conservative movement and the Republican Party, the political vessel which has carried its water for five decades or more, is shot through with phonies, Pharisees, and fib merchants, it is bedeviled by shallow thinking and deep delusions. And the heirs of Buckley know it.

Right now there is a case to be made that Buckley did not really make conservatism safe for mainstream politics, he just helped create a Trojan horse for the distasteful extremes he tried to shoo away. The characters he spent decades trying to fence out of the conservative political project are now in charge of it, their most unsavory tendencies fueled by populism’s oxygen and glowing fire-furnace hot.  At the core of this seems to a lot of angry white guys who define conservatism as little more than me-first nationalism.  I think that it is  more something Buckley would mourn than support.

For example, questioning the cause these days is not considered a healthy exercise in intellectual self-examination, it is apostasy. Inconvenient facts, be they significant (climate change) or trivial (crowd size), are simply substituted with more convenient alternative-facts. Deep thinking on policy has been reduced to a repetitive chant of “tax cuts good, government bad, Democrats evil.” Violence against journalists questioning the party line is trivialized or openly celebrated. Entire swaths of elected conservatives sell out their creed for fealty to a president trafficking in tweet cheats. The national voice of the movement now belongs to bumper sticker bully-boys like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, people whose framework for intellectual debate is insult, incite, indict, then yell, grunt, and repeat. There’s not a lot of characters in that crew that could be described as possessing traits of genuine curiosity, of intellectual seriousness and flexibility, of respectful garrulity, wit, and humor. In other words, it’s hard to see a space where a Bill Buckley type would fit in contemporary conservatism.

And that’s a shame. I say this without an atom of sarcasm or mockery: Having a movement centered on a principled (emphasis: principled) case for the limits of government is a good thing for the Republic. Not because I agree with it—on many issues I just don’t buy the arguments. But because it keeps the other side intellectually honest, because it forces the case for government action to be clearly articulated and justified, and might even prevent unwarranted or harmful statist over-reach. And given the rumblings over in the Bernie Bro and Liz Warren bloc of pie-eyed lefties, the complete hash Trump is making of his presidency, and the GOP’s embrace of much that reality rejects, we’re likely to need it sooner rather than later.

There still exist plenty of principled elected conservatives (Ben Sasse), conservatives with bags of intellectual candle power willing to ask tough questions of their own side (Brooks, David Frum), and platforms where serious long-form policy analysis rather than sound-bite point scoring is still a hallmark of conservative intellectual endeavor (the lads over at the National Review are still chugging along, if not necessarily all in the same direction). So the chances for a revival of Buckley-type conservatism are far from zero, even if they are not particularly good. It’s a matter of numbers, and the Buckley-ites currently do not have them.

So unless there’s some as yet unknown Buckley avatar waiting in the wings, conservatism—and, as long as conservatives are in charge, the rest of us—will just have to ride out its contemporary smoochie-poo embrace of its own distasteful underbelly. What a pisser.

 

*These quotes are pulled from a Buckley essay entitled “What Is Conservatism.” I couldn’t find an online link, but it’s included in The Jeweller’s Eye, a book of his collected speeches and columns that can probably be found under a layer of dust in most large-ish libraries. And before I get button-holed on this, I’m well aware Buckley had some pretty big political skeletons of his own—a big flirt with McCarthyism, for example, and, at least in his early days, some pretty wince-inducing views on civil rights. Still, his willingness to constructively engage with those he disagreed with and a genuine (if far from perfect) embrace of empiricism makes him, in my own humble opinion, a useful and enlightening foil to examine contemporary conservatism.

 

Upside Down Politics

We humans are a disagreeable bunch. Put two of us together and give us the job of making a decision that’s binding on both and sooner rather than later you’ve got an argument. What movie to watch, what pizza toppings to order, what color curtains to buy, whatever the issue at hand we’ll find a way to bang heads about it. And that’s just two of us. Imagine trying to split hairs among 320 million opinions on really important stuff like tax rates, social security, and access to healthcare.

Luckily for us we have a specialized set of institutions to handle these big collective conflicts. That’s basically all a representative democratic system is, just a big conflict management mechanism. That mechanism has worked pretty well in the United States, repeatedly showing itself strong enough to handle Defcon Level Three magnitudes of dissent without the wheels coming off.  Sure, there’s plenty of sturm and drang during election season, and ample rations of finger pointing and policy caterwauling by opposing political teams in between full-on ballot box clashes. In the normal course of things, no big deal. Democratic systems swallow  differences, masticate them into the bitter paste of compromise, and digest them into a painful legislative bowel movement. Everyone agrees that the end result stinks, but, boy, it sure makes everyone feel better.

That process works best, though, when disagreement takes a particular form. Take any given policy issue—gun control, taxes, education, welfare, whatever—and imagine different preferences on what the government should do about that issue. Take gun control as an exemplar. The range of opinions on gun control is massive. On one end is the firm belief that government should not regulate guns at all, that the only thing standing between us and jack- booted totalitarian dystopia is Uncle Fester and his private stash of military-grade weaponry. On the other end is the equally firm belief that Uncle Fester is a nut bag. He’s not making anyone safer, including himself. His concealed shooter will never bag the baddies of his fevered Chuck Norris delusions, but there’s a decent chance it’ll blow off his own butt cheek while he’s dropping trou in the Walmart crapper. For folks on this end of the spectrum, the government should control access to things that go bang very tightly, maybe even regulate them out of existence.

In between those two extremes there’s a lot of room for degrees of difference, a sort of gun regulation policy dial with multiple settings. I’m not suggesting that any one of those settings is better than the other, I’m just saying consider what that big range of opinions looks like.  Because the distribution of preferences on gun control, or any other issue, can take on very different shapes. And that shape helps determine how, or even if, our democratic institutions can handle our disagreements on that issue. What political scientists would consider a nicely behaved shape would look something like this:

This is a normal curve, and in reality a lot of policy preferences (and a lot else in the world) roughly approximate this distribution. If opinions on policy issues look like this in the general population and that distribution of preferences is actually represented in a legislature, then representative democracy is in business. If we take this shape as representing preferences on gun control, on one end of the distribution we’ve got libertarian firearm fetishists and on the other we’ve got fainting daisies who want trigger locks on Nerf guns. Most opinions, though, are piled up in the middle, i.e. most people think guns should be regulated, but not to the point that gun ownership is onerous to the average law abiding citizen. Because that center is where most opinions (and most votes) reside, representative legislatures will naturally gravitate to that as the law making sweet spot.

The problem is that on many issues, that particular distribution of preferences doesn’t exist, at least not as they are represented by legislators. These days most lawmakers are elected to office as tribunes of the right or left, and do not represent the beliefs of the moderate and less ideological center. Well, no worries, our democratic institutions can deal with that. Say we do not have one normal distribution of preferences, but two distinct distributions, one for conservatives/Republicans and another for liberals/Democrats. So the range of opinions we might actually see represented in a legislature look something like this:

 

Here there really isn’t one middle ground, but two. The average conservative lawmaker prefers something fairly distinct from the average liberal lawmaker. Things tend to get a lot more partisan and contentious in this situation, but as long as those two curves have a reasonable amount of overlap a legislature can still converge to a point in between the two sets of average preferences. True, getting there can involve a lot of nasty kicking and screaming. Both sides are more likely to describe the resulting law or policy as snatching bread from the mouths of babes and mothers than a reasonable half-a-loaf. But compromise is still possible. Friction on the democratic gears might be high, but the machine itself grinds on.

That friction gets higher the further those two distributions move apart. In the extreme case the two curves cease to overlap and there’s no middle ground at all. People standing on the extreme tails closest to each other might be able to talk to each other, but the rest of their tribe isn’t going to let their wacko moderates actually build bridges to the other side. In this sort of a situation the democratic machine tends to just lock up.

That’s bad enough, but what we’ve got today is something even worse. On a lot of issues we’ve got upside down politics. Take a look at the first figure and imagine it upside down, something like this:

This inverted normal curve would represent a situation where preferences are split in two and piled up at the extreme ends of the distribution. Not only is there no middle ground between the two sets of preferences, there’s no middle ground on either side. The distribution of preferences now falls into a dichotomy—you’re either with us or against us. Here compromise isn’t the normal price of dealing in democratic politics, it’s surrender. Any attempt to accommodate the other side’s interests represents unforgivable apostasy.

Disagreements characterized by an inverted preference curve are intensely resistant to compromise. This is the politics of first principles, where the other side doesn’t simply have a different point of view, the position they hold is morally repugnant and they must be defeated, not bargained with. Democratic institutions aren’t designed to deal with this, they basically just lock up. The only way to unfreeze the machine is for one side to get a big enough majority to ram its preferences through without any input from the other side. Of course if the other team wins come next election, they’ll ram through exactly the opposite. This can be even worse than a complete lock up because the system is redlining as it lurches from one extreme to the other. At some point the engine will burst a gasket or throw a rod and the whole thing will blow up like my extended mechanical metaphor.

Does this mean there’s no hope for a more civil polity? Hardly. That upside down curve is an uncomfortably accurate description of contemporary policy legislative preferences in Congress and an increasing number of state legislatures. What it doesn’t describe – at least not yet – is the shape of public opinion among the actual electorate. On most issues, peoples’ beliefs still look pretty normally distributed (picture 1), or at most as two reasonably distributed sets of preferences with plenty of overlap (picture 2). So why do we have legislators practicing upside down politics (picture 3)? The simple answer is we let the people on the far end of the distribution pick our legislators. It’s those guys who actually bother to show up in primaries and determine our choices in a general election.

If we want the system to get back to working better then we in the big not-so-ideological middle need to vote in lawmakers who actually represent a reasonable distribution of preferences. Is that likely to happen? Right now I doubt it. But it’s high time the voters threw the system a normal curve.

The New Abnormal

The 44 men elected to serve as chief executive officer of the United States are a bit of a mixed bag.* They range from superlative statesmen (Lincoln, FDR) to mumping mediocrities (Pierce, Dubya), from embodiments of national aspiration (Reagan, Obama) to symbols of national damnation (Hoover, Nixon).  They’ve included everything from paragons of public probity (Washington) to dolly-pronging cad lads congenitally incapable of keeping their plonkers holstered (Clinton, Harding, JFK).

Yet despite all the differences of party, policy, and personal peculiarity, all presidents have, at least until this point, shared a certain a certain deference to the office they occupied. This included respecting the institutional niceties, genuflecting before democratic norms, and generally at least trying to act like they were serious adults doing a serious job. And even if they weren’t serious adults, they at least tried to keep whatever sordid, sleazy, stupid, criminal, or bat shit crazy shenanigans they were up to behind the Oval Office’s tightly drawn curtains.

Then we got Donald J. Trump. He not only gleefully waggles his non compos mentis in front of open windows, he gooses it nekkid across the White House lawn. Just a few months into his administration and the standard norms of the presidency are being abandoned faster than an inconvenient campaign pledge. Trump is giving us a new normal for the presidency, or perhaps more accurately a new abnormal.

A recap of recent events: Trump fired the head of FBI saying it was on the recommendation of the Department of Justice. Then he basically admitted it was because of an FBI investigation into his campaign’s Russia ties. Then he tweeted veiled threats to the agency head he just canned. Then he owned to passing on classified information to a government hostile to the interests of the United States—and doing it in the Oval Office, no less. He also claimed to have invented the phrase “priming the pump” (we’re still trying to get economists jaws off the ground), and told Time he gets two scoops of ice cream while everyone else at the White House table gets one.

Now, in and of itself, nothing in the previous paragraph marks Trump as a particularly precedent-busting president. Plenty of his predecessors racked up impressive records of scandal, silliness, and engaged in stuff that was weird or creepy. Nixon started firing people when they got too close to the truth of Watergate. Reagan had a guy selling missiles to Iran out of the White House basement. Jimmy Carter said he was attacked by a vicious rabbit (seriously). Lyndon Johnson was notorious for—and I’m being quite literal here—willy waving. Johnson called his johnson “jumbo”, which might explain why so many people thought LBJ was such a dick. And, BTW, sorry for phallic theme that seems to be developing here, but it’s sort of inevitable given that the voters keep limiting this club to Y-chromosome carriers. Boys and their toys and all that.

What makes Trump such a harbinger of the new abnormal is not necessarily what he’s done, but how much of it he’s managed to cram into so short a period of time. What makes that paragraph above so cosmically gobsmacking is not that it packs in enough scandal and impropriety, fib and fabrication, and kook and crazy to leave lasting marks on a presidential legacy. It would certainly do that if it was spread out over four-year administration. What marks Trump as different is that all came out within the past twelve days. It’s kind of hard to process. Minds more agile than mine are working overtime to keep pace with the boggle.

And that’s just some of the most recent stuff. The scandals, misfires, gaffes, blunders and general epic levels of ineptness are multiplying faster than Jimmy Carter’s rabbits. Last week The New York Times editorial board put out a list of mortifying presidential precedents Trump has set, which include attacking private citizens on social media, charging an immediate predecessor with criminal activity without providing any evidence, intimidating congressional witnesses, undermining the legitimacy of the judiciary, refusing to release tax returns, engaging in bald ass nepotism, and going golfing most weekends at a staggering cost to the taxpayer. The Times’ list was extensive, but mostly notable for two things. First, it was representative not comprehensive, in other words it left out a lot. Second, the Times’ felt compelled to update it only 48-hours after publishing it because, well, that’s plenty of time for the Trump administration to produce another three or four solid claimants to any catalog of presidential shame.

I know how the Times op-ed scribes feel. In the hour since I started writing this—I completely kid you not—another scandal hit. This was the one about Trump asking the FBI director not to investigate Mike Flynn, the national security adviser pink slipped for fibbing about his contacts with Russian officials. By the time I post this I wouldn’t be surprised if that was old news, a distant three-scandals-ago-memory languishing in the outer reaches of our twitter feeds. To heck with it, though, I’m not even going to try and stay current with the expeditiously moving target of Trump administration peccadillos. I can’t keep up and tallying the crises (plural) de jour isn’t the point.

The point is that in just a few months Trump has sullied the presidency in ways that it took his most nefarious predecessors’ years of dedicated skullduggery to equal. He has literally managed to set the bar so low for presidential behavior that making it through 24-hours without a major shite cyclone is now considered a political win by legislators in his own party. Here’s a selection of quotes from GOP senators made in the past few days: the White house is “in a downward spiral”; Trumps tweets “take us off in a ditch”; the scandals are “Watergate size”; “we could do with a little less drama from the White House; and, my favorite, “can we have a crisis free day? That’s all I’m asking” (respectively Bob Corker, Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, John McCain and Susan Collins).

Again, that’s just the Republicans we’re talking about. The Dems are past tut-tuts and disapproving harumphs and ready to get their impeachment on. That it got to this point in less than four months—four freakin’ months—shows just how removed from normal the Trump administration is. Now in fairness, Trump was not elected to be normal, to carry on with politics as usual. But jeez, I don’t think any serious grownup contemplated this. This is less about draining a swamp than sinking into one.

I suppose, though, we all better get used to it. It’s the new abnormal.

*Little known fact: though Trump is officially the 45th president, only 44 dudes have actually had the full Hail to the Chief treatment. Grover Cleveland won election to non-consecutive terms and was technically the 22nd and the 24th president.