Category Archives: Political Parties and Ideology

The GOP Is Starting to Get Tired of All The Winning

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Trumpcare Treats the Winner’s Curse

I’m a political centrist receptive to certain conservative arguments, but since big chunks of the Republican Party took the cuckoo train to looney town I’ve had a hard time finding common ground with the GOP. This past week, though, I’ve been surprised to find myself sharing certain attributes with the House Republican caucus on a critically important political issue. To be specific, like most Republicans in that chamber I have neither read the American Healthcare Act of 2017 (ACA) nor do I have an inkling of its real implications.

I’m not surprised I know jack about the ACA. My general impression is that it’s a tangle of bosh and baloney, the sort of legislative sneaky beaky undertaken by partisan bagmen and interest-group special ops. But who knows. It’s a heavy read (full text here) and it’d take days for me to parse out even its broad-stroke ramifications. I can’t be bothered because we professional observers of politics just have too much else on our plates these days. The Trump White House’s typical daily schedule of a morning Twitter calumny, a noon-time peccadillo, the three o’clock scandal, the five o’clock firing, all topped with a busy evening of minions competing for victory in the arch madness bracket, just doesn’t leave us much time for anything else.

So there, I admit I know diddly about ACA except what’s reported in the media, and I’m pretty skeptical about that because I guarantee most of the professional gum-flappers haven’t read the bill either. If you and I lack a full and nuanced understanding of a complicated piece of legislation, though, it’s not supposed to be a big deal. We have tribunes representing our collective interests and they get paid to pay attention to these details on our behalf. So it’s galling in the extreme to discover that scads of them just voted to re-order a sixth of the nation’s economy and adjust the probabilities of millions getting health care coverage without reading any of the fine print or, I’m pretty sure, even the large-print Cliff’s Notes cheater card.

And it really does seem to be the case that many cast votes for this bill while being unburdened by any real understanding of its potential consequences. There was no independent analysis of its costs, no hearings, and it was being heavily amended the night before it was frog marched out onto the House floor for a vote. The ACA was the legislative equivalent of a 300 pound churro and there’s no way anyone choked that down in a few hours. This was never going to end well and it didn’t. Republicans initially took a victory lap, crowing that the ACA was the dog’s bollocks plus a bag of chips. Then reporters started asking all the high-fiving gloaters what was actually in the bill and what did it all mean and the umming, and ahhing began. It became pretty clear, pretty quickly that whatever was in the bill, it was at best a half-baked dogs breakfast and almost certainly political kryptonite for the GOP.

Late-night comedians pounced, and the sheer ineptitude of some of the spluttering gas passers who yayed the proposal nearer to law would be funny if the issue wasn’t so serious (here’s John Oliver making the point). A dawning recognition that they’d just dropped themselves into five fathoms of poo sent the Gang that Couldn’t Toot Straight slinking home for recess and hoping voters didn’t notice the stink. The few Republicans brave enough to face their constituents this week got the rotten tomatoes treatment, egged on by Democrats who were busily organizing schadenfreude squads. Most GOP House members just laid low, only mingling with constituents whose sycophancy qualified as a pre-existing condition. As for the rest of the voters, the GOP crew mostly seemed to be hoping they’d suffer a mass attack of convenience amnesia and forget what a colossal cock-up the House just made of things.

Well, good luck with all that. The real question is why did the House Republicans do this? Forget all the bumpf and babble about how the bill is going to be a huge improvement on what we currently have. Outside the House, even most Republicans don’t buy that. Plenty of GOP Senators, for example, are treating the bill the House just handed them like it was the towel used to clean up after an epic case of the bad-churro squits.

Any way you cut it, the ACA is bad press, bad politics, and almost certainly bad policy. Yes, the jury is still out on exactly what the bill costs and how it will shape health care access and delivery, but the uncertainty is mostly about whether it’s merely awful or catastrophically dire. Voters are ticked at House Republicans, pretty much the entire swath of healthcare-related interest groups are ticked at House Republicans, and even Senate Republicans are ticked at House Republicans. It seems puzzling that the majority of an elected legislative chamber would load both barrels, pull the trigger and perforate their lower extremity with such deliberate gusto.

I think the primary reason for the eagerness to commit this self-inflicted wound boils down to a variant of the winner’s curse. To social scientists, the winner’s curse technically describes the tendency of people to overpay in auctions of common value. Roughly translated into actual English, that basically says that people who aren’t fully aware of the value of something (or its cost), tend to bid up its price. This leads to buyer’s regret, the feeling you get after blowing a hole in your wallet on something that turns out not to be the dog’s bollocks and a bag of chips. That’s the winner’s curse.

And that’s what I think House Republicans have on healthcare. Over the past eight or nine years they have ridiculously bid up what they can fork out for a healthcare plan. They’ve argued Obamacare is a disaster that’s failing and that only they can fix the problem and win the nation a shiny new, super-duper most-definitely-not-Obamacare health plan. Complicating their bid was the spreading realization among voters how much they liked at least bits of Obamacare, especially stuff like preventing insurers from denying coverage, requiring coverage of pre-existing conditions, and keeping children on parental coverage into their mid-20s. And the millions who got healthcare thanks to Medicaid expansion definitely want to keep that.

Well, no worries said the Republicans, you can have all that, plus you won’t have to pay for it. That’s a pretty damn high bid and as long as Obama was in the White House the GOP didn’t have to worry about having it called. Then they won. Everything. And having so fervently promised their frothing base how Obamacare was all death panels and socialist overreach, they had to make good on their bid or look like pikers of the highest order. Problem was, all they had to back their bid was the political equivalent of wooden nickels and monopoly money. They had to lay their currency down, of course, burning through pretty much all their political capital to purchase the bill they so desperately wanted. And finally having closed the sale on an Obamacare repeal they now own it. Indeed, as Nancy Pelosi said, they positively “glow in the dark” with it. They are also belatedly starting to realize their shiny new phosphorescent purchase isn’t worth what they paid. In precise political terms its value is diddly and squat.

Carrying that into the next election really is likely to be a curse, one Republicans cast upon themselves by winning.

An Awkward Elevator Moment With Post-Modern Conservatism

One of the reason’s I’m so discombobulated by contemporary conservatism’s embrace of post-modernism is that it is so, well, French. Bluestocking twaddle wholesalers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault have been force-fumigating Gauloise smoke up credulous leftie bum cracks for decades. The political right, though, turned its cheeks at such Francophone hot gas, spurning post-modernism’s tickle-your-fancy fresh philosophical airs. They’ve tended to treat it more like an embarrassing butt squeak ponging up a crowded elevator.

And, at least until now, I’ve generally stood with the forces of traditionalism and conservatism on this one. As an academic I’ve had to read my cod liver oil ration of post-modern writings, which abound with sentences like this: “The dialectical immediacy of transmutable perspectives resolves into a neo-semantic materialism, and though the shadow of Engels falls below the beard of Marx, an ounce of Freud beats a kilo of brussels sprouts any day.” Battalions of artisanal academic guff fabricators churn out reams of this stuff; whole journals are dedicated to it.

I generally try to ignore it all, but on very rare occasions I have to hold my nose and dive in because, and it pains me to admit it, I am a craven lickspittle to the anonymous reviewers who serve as gatekeepers to academic publication. Every once in a while, a fiendish journal editor will slip in a post-modern type reviewer and I’m forced to read stuff like, “This paper needs more attention to the seminal article I wrote on the structural de-structuralism of post-structural pre-structures and its implications for the future structure of structuralism.” The upshot to these sort of missives is an unpleasant hour or two in the library, which inevitably leads to unfortunate undergrads encountering a deranged professor in the stacks waving his arms around and yelling, “What the Foucault are they all prattling about? Are they just having us on?”

Near as anyone can tell, post-modernism is a world view that rejects the idea of an objective reality. Instead it posits that truth is a matter of perspective. So, if I base my notion of truth on verifiable facts and rational, scientific analysis, and you base your truth on a reading of magic beans and the latest bulletin from the lads over at madashatters.com, in post-modern eyes we have equally valid points of view. This makes it very hard to have grown up conversations.

Take the whole who-let-one-go in the elevator scenario as an example. To someone like me—what’s known in the trade as a logical positivist—there are a set of immutable facts about this situation, independent of senses or interpretation. To wit, someone had the ptomaine tacos for lunch, then the gaseous dog got into a confined space with others, let ‘er rip, and now everyone’s eyes are watering. To a post-modernist there are no facts there, only perspectives. The guy in the corner gagging may actually be experiencing attar of roses olfactory bliss, the gendered nature of flatulence clearly implies a latent intra-elevator class power structure, and this in turn is rooted in the unspoken patriarchal dominance that originates in the culinary totalitarianism of toot totin’ tacos.

Your mileage might vary of course, but the latter viewpoint is either a careful contextual deconstruction of an assumed reality that reveals a larger social truth or, and I’m using the technical term here, complete bullshit.  I come firmly down on the bovine scatological inference, but then I would, what with being a philistine grubber of facts and admitted practitioner of the dark arts of hypothesis testing.

This was all bad enough when post-modernism was a limited lefty pretension, but lately it seems to have been embraced wholesale by the right. In toddling across the ideological spectrum to get its smooch on with the conservatives, though, post-modernism seems to have lost something in translation. The lefties liked to keep up intellectual appearances, covering post-modernism’s gooey poop-filled center with a thick carapace of near impenetrable prose. There might not be any facts in there, but all the big words caroming around at least seemed to suggest some sort of serious cerebral labor was going on. Who the hell knows if some semblance of a coherent point was tangled up in all the fustian multisyllabic oratory, but lacking full comprehension you could never fully rule out that possibility.

In its embrace of post-modernism, though, the right has dropped any such conceit. There’s no equivalent phalanx of sophists swilling wine and thinking deep thoughts like, “how do we really know that what I call orange others may experience as black? And, if orange is the new black, is there a dense tome about chromatic power imbalances in it?” Nope, conservative post-modern tribunes don’t need prolix academic posers perfuming their manure spreading. No screwing around. They just goose facts straight into the slaughterhouse chute of their Twitter feeds and poleaxe them.

Donald Trump is, of course, the poster boy of the new post-modern right. He’s basically created an entire “post-truth” politics, a real world philosophical achievement that would leave Foucault in awe (at best, Foucault only managed to create a few post-truth faculty lounges). This clearly has more than a little to do with Trump’s powers as a vampire of verity, able to suck truth dry with social media fangs no more than 140 characters long. Reputable fact checking cites rate Trump’s fib rate as off the charts (see here, here, and here for examples). Those sorts of operations, though, are mostly missing the point. They make the assumption that facts and causal logic that can reliably rivet them to each other are what truth is all about. In other words, they think facts matter. They are clearly not post-modernists.

Trump devotees clearly are. As Scottie Nell Hughes, news director at Tea Party News Network put it, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”  Let that sink in. This is someone who purports to be in the news business saying facts don’t matter. As she put it, if Trump tweets something that millions believe, to them that’s truth. If another set of millions see those same tweets as giant whoppers from the burgher king, to them that’s truth. And, well, that’s it. The notion that some things—let alone most things—can be verified as authentic or inauthentic independent of political perspective is no more. No need to engage in any potentially painful review of facts to see if there is any evidentiary basis for whatever brain fart is currently jetting across your social media space. If it gives you a warm fuzzy it’s truth on a stick. If not, it’s a fib on a twig. Either way you’ve got a bit of rhetorical wood to beat the crap out of the other guy with. The notion there might be some way to objectively adjudicate the relative veracity of these positions is summarily coshed and left to expire in the corner. Perspective defines truth. That’s post-modernism.

This doesn’t leave much of a role for actual journalists, academics like me, grown-ups in either political party, or anyone else with a healthy skepticism that their own biases are a sound basis for getting an accurate understanding of the real world. There is no real-world in the post-modern universe, just the one we perceive. So us realpolitik types find ourselves strangely alone. No one seems to care about reality anymore. It’s just too damn inconvenient, stuffed with all those annoying facts that have an irritating habit of contradicting political preferences. What we have left are vast clouds of partisan gas that certainly make for a big stink, but foster little in the way of communication. Somewhere in all that fog are separate tribes greedily inhaling the bias-reinforcing intoxicants of their own myopic miasmas, their feet firmly planted on the fact-free vapor they mistake for earth. Getting these angels of self-deception out of their cloud any time soon seems unlikely, which means meaningful political discourse will continue to get atomized in the fact-free ether. You kind of need reality to have a meaningful conversation, and the market for reality is currently in a Black Monday-level free fall.

The market for post-positivism, though, is clearly booming thanks to its sudden passionate embrace by the right. “Being is. Being is in itself. Being is what it is,” as Sartre said. Know what that means? Me neither, but I think it means the Donald can get away with being who he is just as long as large numbers of citizens refuse to see any world but the one created from their own biased perspectives. It’s all very worrying because, regardless of where our political views lie, we’re all in the elevator of the Republic together and have a communal interest in the guy pushing the buttons. You might perceive him pushing the button that gets us to the penthouse suite of great-again America. You might perceive him yanking the emergency stop that’ll leave all of us swinging ten floors up on a fraying cable. Either way, it doesn’t mean that what you perceive is actually real. But if no one is interested in unzipping fact from fiction because it might sting too much, it’s hard to see where we’re really going at all. If we’re pointing fingers, both sides should be apportioned some blame for this sorry state of affairs. That said, if you’re wondering why your eyes are watering right now, I’m pretty sure the conservative did it.

Third Parties, Fifth Wheels And Second Place

Third parties are the fifth wheels of American politics. They are the electoral hangers-on, the legislative lagniappe, the governmental gooseberries, the boobies on the commonweal’s boar hog. Their chances of winning any significant electoral office are roughly equal to the probability of me winning the heart of Jennifer Anniston.

While third parties are perennial losers, though, it doesn’t mean they have no say in who wins. As history shows, they most decidedly do. Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party cost William Howard Taft a second term and put Woodrow Wilson in the White House. H. Ross Perot vacuumed just enough votes from George H.W. Bush to tip the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. A bunch of yahoos and Jim Crow suckups bolted the Democratic Party in 1948 and as the Dixiecrats nearly cost Harry Truman the election.

The all-time, hall of fame presidential election spoiler, though, has to be the Green Party, an agglomeration of save the whales do-gooders that, electorally speaking, is best described as a gun club using its own feet for target practice.  This is because not only has it twice in the past 16 years played an outsized role in determining the chief executive — both times it helped install a president antagonistic to its central policy aims. Indeed, in terms of national political campaigns, the Green Party has single-handedly done more to undermine environmental causes than all the daft, delirious and devious fib shippers currently trafficking in global warming conspiracy markets.

The Green’s policy agenda has a heavy focus on polar bear rescue squads and ensuring every breath is a snootful of oxygenated pleasure free of particulate pestilence. So how does it end up doing so much damage to environmental causes? Easy. It runs wackadoodle candidates for president who have no chance of winning, but an outstanding chance of attracting just enough disaffected liberals to torpedo the Democratic nominee. Greens are basically lefties too busy staring into their organic bong residue to grasp that they are actually supporting the fossil fuel mother frackers they profess to oppose.

Think about it. In 2000 the Green Party almost certainly kept Al Gore out of the White House. Gore was, hands down, the biggest treehugger to ever become a major party presidential nominee.  He won the popular vote which, as we know all too well these days, isn’t enough to get you the key code to the Oval Office. The reason we never had a President Gore was because he fell 537 votes short of George W. Bush in the critical state of Florida, a margin thinner than Dubya’s hold on proper syntax. Roughly six million votes were cast in Florida that year, and there’s even a defensible case that Gore would have actually won that state if the votes were accurately counted. But here’s the crucial electoral math of the 2000 election: the Greens got nearly 100,000 votes in Florida. Remove the Green Party from that ballot and the idea that Gore couldn’t scrounge up enough votes to gain 538 on Bush is laughable. Those 100,000 eco-commandos did more to put Bush in the White House than the RNC.

No matter, in 2000 all the electoral accounting forensics were mooted by a bunch of state’s rights advocates on the US Supreme Court who ruled that Florida should just shut its trap and declare Bush the winner. Big whoop said Ralph Nader, national scold, consumer safety personage, and the Green Party’s 2000 presidential candidate. He famously rejected any responsibility for Gore’s defeat, and basically said he didn’t care anyway because there was no real difference between Democrats and Republicans. Both the Dems and the GOP thought that was hilarious, though only the Republicans ended up laughing. They went on a decade-long deregulation binge. This was partially responsible for the drill-baby-drill BP “we don’t need no stinkin’ regulations” blowout that pranged the Deepwater Horizon and bathed the southern coast of the United States in crude oil in 2010. While all that was happening Gore went on to become one of the most prominent climate change activists on the planet and scored a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Yeah, if you think the environment is one of the big issues of our age, sure wouldn’t want that guy in office. Dodged a bullet there.

And then there’s the most recent Green Party act of electoral hari-kari, to wit, playing an outsize role in getting Donald Trump the presidency. Trump is a big popular vote loser, millions short of what his opponent hauled in. The key story of the 2016 election is a handful of “blue wall” — presumed solidly Democratic — states that made the critical difference to Trump’s Electoral College victory. The most crucial of these were Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump won all three by razor-thin margins — only two-tenths of a percent of the vote in Michigan, eight-tenths in Wisconsin, and 1.2 percent in Pennsylvania. The Greens almost certainly cost Clinton Michigan (Trump won by roughly 10,000, the Greens picked up just north of 50,000), arguably Wisconsin, and at a minimum sure didn’t do the Democratic nominee much good in Pennsylvania.

Those three states make the difference between a President Clinton and a President Trump and that difference is in no small part the Green Party. What’s truly astonishing is that they managed to pull off this outsized influence on the Republic’s future with such a piffling trifle of the electorate. Total ballots cast for Green Party nominee Jill Stein across all three states is something like 160,000 out of roughly 13 million cast. Trump won those three states, combined, by a total of roughly 85,000 votes. Hillary gets half the Green votes distributed just so across just those three states and she wins.

Instead, what the Greens did by attracting only one percent of the vote in those states is help bring about this: Trump administration nominees that include a climate change denying head of the EPA, the head of ExxonMobil as Secretary of State, and a Department of Energy secretary who not only is a fossil fuel booster, but once campaigned to eliminate the Energy Department even though he couldn’t remember what it was. Oh, and talking about the DOE, Team Trump is currently compiling lists of its scientists who attended climate meetings, and no one thinks being on that list is likely to be big career booster.  How’s that whole “we Greens run because there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans” working out for your old policy goals, eh?

Just to put the forehead smacking coda on the Green Party’s 2016 contribution to keeping climate change on the coal-fired back burner, Stein recently spearheaded a vote recount effort in all three of the states I just mentioned. This was baffling on its face.  It’s not like state election officials were going to find a cache of enchanted Green ballots that would magically start adding zeros to Stein’s vote totals. The official justification from Stein was to insure the integrity of the process and to make sure there was no fraud, Russian hacking of voting machines or, I dunno, Pandas voting illegally or something. In short, the Green Party started channeling Trump’s “massive” electoral fraud speciousness through its sacred crystal of knowledge. The only lucid reason I can fathom for the Green Party recount effort is some sort of a forlorn hope that election officials would somehow find a reason to toss out all the votes for Stein and thus push Clinton’s electoral vote count higher. That at least would nudge the cosmic policy possibilities a smidge in the Greens’ direction. If that’s the actual intent, though, it means someone in the Green Party can count, which kind of makes you wonder where that guy was when the whole quixotic let’s-put-on-a-presidential-campaign-and-really-show-folks-something scheme was first hatched.

Regardless, the post-election discount doublecheck got the Greens and Stein a lot of attention but zilch in terms of political gains. The recount in Wisconsin was duly conducted at a cost of mere millions, and the upshot was to add 131 more votes to Trump’s victory margin. The Michigan recount was stopped because, as the adults pointed out, Stein had zippo probability of benefiting from a recount so she didn’t have much standing to ask for one. A federal judge put the kibosh on the Pennsylvania recount before it really got underway, calling it “borderline irrational.” Truer words were never spoken. But then, voting for Stein in the first place turns out to have been borderline irrational. Especially if you care about the environment.