The GOP Is Starting to Get Tired of All The Winning

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GOPolarization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Senate is in The House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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 Unfortunate Heart of Politics

Thomas Jefferson supposedly once said that the “American experiment would prove that men can be governed by reason and reason alone.”* Well, Tommy-boy, the evidence is in and that hypothesis holds less water than beef jerky.

If the Republic has proven anything it is that people are mostly governed by their passions. Oh, they are happy to tell you that their politics are cogent and reasoned. And, in the vast majority of cases, they are absolutely wrong. Political attitudes are driven by impulse and intuition, debated with fervor and feeling. Our political choices are driven less by rational heads than by peevish hearts. Politically speaking we are less Mr. Spock and more Dr. McCoy. Rational analysis is not our bag, we’re more damnit-Jim-let’s-set-phasers-to-kill types.

Jefferson had this idea—noble, but completely nutty—that the American system of government could foster an informed and judicious citizenry. Ensconced within the nurturing folds of their democratic blanket, the electorate would do its part by deliberating carefully before making its political choices. This collective act of popular prudence would accrue into governance by and for the greater social good. Many Americans still tend to favor Jefferson’s idea as a not wholly fallacious description of the Republic’s reality. And, like Jefferson, they’re self-deludingly bonkers.

It’s hard to govern by reason and reason alone because, well, reason is never alone. Its constant companion is emotion. And while emotion often doesn’t make much sense and leads us to do some pretty silly stuff, it sure feels good. Reason proposes cutting down on the carbs and taking up jogging. Emotion proposes sitting down on the couch and taking up a cold one. Reason might know what’s best for us, but chances are we’re guzzling beer and chips and not powering up on minimally processed, gluten free protein pucks before a five mile run.

Believe it or not, the same general principal works in politics. Especially contemporary politics, which is increasingly tribal. People are not voting on the basis of a knowledgeable and dispassionate weighing of pros and cons on what’s best for themselves, their community, or their country. At best, they’re just voting their team. Political scientists have known for decades that you can predict someone’s vote with 80-90 percent accuracy in pretty much any election, from city dog catcher to president of the United States, just by knowing their party identification. At worst they’re mad as hell, haven’t a clue, and making their political choices more or less at random.

Now, there are some in my profession who argue that being pig-ignorant and voting purely on the basis of who has an “R” or a “D” on the ballot is both rational and reasonable. If the parties represent competing baskets of policy positions and a voter has a minimal notion that one is more conservative and the other is more liberal, then there’s no need to dive too deep into the details. As long as the “R” or the “D” more or less connects with the genuine preferences of the voter it’ll all come out in the Jeffersonian wash.

Except it doesn’t. The lack of information for many voters is so gobsmackingly complete they are largely incapable of connecting what they want out of government to their vote. In other words, they are perfectly capable of repeatedly voting against their own interests. There have been a number of academic studies suggesting this is a widespread phenomenon and even entire books devoted to the subject (the best known is probably still Thomas Frank’s, What’s The Matter With Kansas?). Representative surveys administering basic tests of political knowledge show most Americans flunking even the most basic civics test.

If there’s plenty of evidence that people are not voting on the basis of reason, there’s overwhelming evidence they are voting on the basis of emotion. Anger, hope, frustration, trust, disgust – this is what gets people ginned up and out to the polls, not their extensive consumption of C-SPAN and policy white papers. Most elections—certainly the last one—are less Jeffersonian rites of reason than cries of passion. Politics for most people is less sober meditation on how to improve the public administration than an irksome let’s-just-get-this-over-with civic obligation or, even worse, a yee-haw moment of catharsis.

Unlike Jefferson, Founding Dudes with more skeptical takes on human nature—James Madison, Alexander Hamilton—never thought reason intruded too far into the politics of the vast majority of people. The idea of a Republic bobbing along on a warm bath of populace-supplied rationality probably struck them as loony. They were just hoping to get a jigger of the stuff into government while tamping the popular passions down to the smallest minimum possible.

And the institutions they established have done, mostly, a decent job of this. But human institutions are no match for human nature. The institutions increase the probability that actual grownups will run the government, but they offer no guarantees. They give reason a decent shot at making it into the running of the commonweal, but offer no warranty. They leave open the possibility that those elected to powerful office will reflect the troubling political traits that huge swaths of voters display in spades: A mind-blowing lack of information about government and a disconcerting reliance on emotion in making important decisions. Given the behavior of a certain bitter Twitter critter, you might say we are already there.

And what’s a reasonable person to do when that happens? Beam me up Scotty.

*I say “supposedly” because while I could track down plenty of examples of people quoting this quote, I couldn’t actually locate an original source or something that cited an original sauce.


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.

Kansas Comes to its Senses

There’s a general consensus among professional observers of politics that the federal government is, to use the correct technical term, ate up with dumb ass. POTUS is potty, Congress is cuckoo, and partisanship has gone postal. Maybe so, but there are some hopeful signs down at the state level that all the insane-in-the-membrane political fever is breaking.

Case in point is Kansas. Five years ago, Gov. Sam Brownback led a mostly successful charge to fully implement the low tax, small government political agenda long lusted after by Milton Friedman fanboys, Laffer Curve libertarians, and Koch brothers conservatives. The basic plan was to free Kansas entrepreneurs from the shackles of onerous (or even any) taxation, and they’d use the extra dough to unleash innovation, create jobs and usher in a new era of prosperity and plenty for the Sunflower State.  It didn’t happen. They just stopped paying taxes. And the government went broke. Go figure.

What was truly looney about Kansas’ whole hog embrace of right-wing economic policy was not that they tried it. What the heck, you never know unless you try. Well, they tried. And tried. And tried. And the same thing happened every stinkin’ year—the government sank one level deeper into the budgetary doo-doo. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then the Kansas government was clinically deranged.

For years, Brownback and his troops insisted things were going to get better. Any day now, the low tax economic miracle would arrive and, hoo-boy, wouldn’t those smug so-and-sos in the states surrounding Kansas be sorry they hadn’t followed suit. While Kansas government sank a full fathoms five into the financial ooze, those other states were foolishly taxing their citizens and throwing away that money on functioning public education systems, decent roads, and a modicum of fiduciary responsibility. Like any of that’s going to underpin economic growth. Suckers.

Unfortunately for Brownback the electorate got tired of waiting for his fiscal Godot to show up. After half-a-decade of watching its government madly clicking its Ruby Red supply-side slippers and leaving them all down at the heels, Kansans had finally had enough. Last election they bounced the Brownback/Tea Party wing of the GOP out on its behind and elected just enough moderate Republicans and Democrats to give common sense a fighting chance in the state legislature. And fight it did. The Kansas legislature passed legislation that, more or less, said, “the nut jobbery stops now.” Brownback vetoed it. The legislature—just—overrode the veto a couple of weeks ago.

The return of common sense was greeted glumly in some quarters. Some could of this could be chalked up to supply side true believers like Brownback, who kept begging everyone to keep chugging the Kool Aid because, seriously guys, just two more swallows we’ll all be piddling rainbows. It was celebrated by others, and not always in a sporting way. The schadenfreude squad was out in full force, and a lot of tut-tutting and told-you-sos could be heard coming from the neighborhood Keynesians. The lesson they are drawing is that you don’t boost an economy by destroying the state’s ability to provide the public goods and services that make it possible.

That’s a perfectly reasonable inference, but I seriously doubt Kansas’ experience will impart any universally agreed upon economic wisdom to the left or right. Conservatives will insist the underlying logic was sound, it was just the execution that was off. Maybe it would’ve worked if Kansas had not just cut taxes, but also stopped squandering the few dollars it did have on frou-frou like roads and teachers, and then cut all corporate regulation down to a single, voluntary “try not to kill anyone” rule of thumb. Liberals will likely infer the conservatives had the causal logic backwards. Clearly, if you cut taxes the economy tanks, ergo the best way to boost economic fortunes is to tax the snot out of everything. Thus we should start a vigorous program of taxing and spending and beggar government in the usual way. It’s tradition for chrissakes.

While it’s not likely to resolve partisan differences on economic policy, there is a political lesson that will—or at least should—be crystal clear from the Kansas experience. To wit: If you’ve got the chutzpah you can get away with promising the electorate caviar while feeding them horse shit. But you better be careful. By the third or fourth course, even some of the ideological faithful are going to start noticing those sturgeon’s eggs smack of horse flop. That tends to take the shine off a policy agenda and leave the voters with a very bad taste in their mouths.

And that, funnily enough, is about as hopeful a message as you’ll find in American politics these days. The big news from Kansas is not the epic failure of its self-proclaimed, “real live experiment” on the Republican Party’s most cherished economic prescription, though fail it did. The big news is that the electorate took note of the failure. Alternative-facts didn’t muscle out the actual evidence, and voters not only called BS they actually backed candidates for office—mostly moderate Republicans—whose prudence-to-piffle ratio promised a more centrist, reality-based notion of governance. This is not an occasion to get too misty eyed about the innate wisdom of the people. Let’s not forget this is the same group who for years happily noshed on Brownback’s equine butt pucks and trotted off to the polls to vote for seconds.

But there’s still some glimmer of hope there. Voters did, eventually, notice that their government was inept on a colossal scale and, just, did something about it before their chief executive carted them all the way to crazy town. Hopefully that’s a lesson from Kansas the rest of the country can learn from.

 

Anarchy in the UK

In 1962 Dean Acheson famously stuck a fork into the battered carcass of the United Kingdom by saying, “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.” Fast forward about fifty years and it’s more accurate to say Great Britain has lost its marbles and not yet found a poll, or at least any yardstick of public opinion that is (a) accurate, and (b) makes any damn sense.

A couple of years ago the Brits confounded survey predictions and stunned the experts by voting to leave the European Union. Last week they did it again, only this time rather than voting to leave the EU they voted to kneecap their own government just as it starts haggling over the divorce settlement. Rather than strengthening the Tory government’s majority and its negotiating position—the long-predicted and expected outcome—the voters not only embraced “none of the above”, they actually got the bugger elected. The UK now has a sort of zombie government. It’s ambulatory, but struggling to achieve political sentience.

In this looking glass British political world, the big winner of the election was the loser. This is Labour Party leader and seventies space cadet Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn’s politics, basically a mish-mash of socialist tripe and Hugo Chavez bumper stickers, were thought to be too loony even for an electorate long known for its tolerance of eccentricity. But by promising free everything, lunch included, he locked up the youth vote which—and this almost never, ever happens—actually showed up and voted. The fact that Corbyn’s sums didn’t add up didn’t seem to matter. Apparently a super-rich oligarch living in Chelsea was going to be forced to pay for everything. Or something like that.

The big loser was the winner Prime Minister Theresa May. She not only ran a gobsmackingly tone-deaf campaign, she just couldn’t connect with voters. She tried adopting a Margaret Thatcher iron lady sort of image. It didn’t work, mostly because the composition of her character seems to be roughly nine parts gelatin to one part of any sort of ferrous material. She flopped and flipped (nickname: Theresa May, Maybe Not), and a song titled “Liar, Liar” was not only dedicated to her, it hit the top of the charts. Given a chance to inject some much-needed color into her monochrome effort on the hustings, she opted for a nice shade of beige. Lobbed a softball by an interviewer asking what was “the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?” she replied by saying she’d run through a wheat field when she was younger. Not run through nekkid, or with her hair on fire, or carrying her favorite bong because the bobbies were raiding the rave. Nope, nothing like that.  Just an impish trot through a patch of maturing cereals. What a rascal.

Well, the Thatcher in the Rye ran her party right into the political weeds. The Tory disaster was all optional, the product of a snap election called deliberately to give British government a more powerful majority to deal with the EU in the Brexit negotiations. And it would be good for Britain to have a strong united front at that table, because the EU definitely wants a kilo (2.2 pounds) of flesh as the price for the UK regaining its sovereignty and the right to deregulate the curvature of its bananas (don’t ask, EU regulations are a pig’s breakfast of illogic*). Well, not only do the Tories not have a strengthened majority, they now have no majority at all. To govern they’ve had to cobble together a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party, possibly the last functioning political organization non-ironically advocating Imperial rule (up yours Dean Acheson). Good luck with that chaps.

Does any of this really matter to those of staring agog from this side of the pond? Who really cares if the British government’s own voters sent them to the negotiating table with their credibility knackered and their trousers around their ankles? I mean, what with the controversial transition of the White House into Kremlin West, the GOP’s attempt to remove its own vertebral column, and nut jobs spraying lead at congressional charity baseball teams, we’ve got enough on our political plate.

Well, yes, that’s the point. The United Kingdom is important to the United States because it’d be nice if someone kept an eye on the global store while we go wackadoodle, and from an American point of view the UK is the assistant manager of choice. Not because the UK is subservient or a suck-up (well, not all the time), but because it shares with the United States a highly similar set of liberal democratic and market values. True, the British Lion doesn’t quite have the roar that it used to. Okay, it can’t roar at all. But it still has a pretty fierce meow.

The UK has the fifth largest economy in the world, a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, a set of respected and professional military/intelligence capabilities, and is one of only five nations with a true deep water navy (that means if it says to another country we’re going to come over there and kick your ass, they could actually give it a go). The only other nation on the planet with similar stature, capabilities and US-friendly values is France. And being as France is, um, full of the French, the UK is pretty much it as the practical option for an international bestest buddy, or at least the option more likely to help cover America’s back as opposed to piddle up it.

As the Brits seem to be taking a powder from rationality at the very same time as the United States, however, there’s nobody really minding the store at all. Right now there’s a deafening sucking sound in geopolitics. That’s the vacuum being created as America and the United Kingdom announce they’re going to their rooms for some alone time (translation: to engage in  spirited sessions of ideological self-abuse punctuated by lots of noisy navel gazing).  Filling that vacuum—whether they like it or not–are China, Russia and assorted lesser opportunistic types hoping to bite off a chunk of US butt. Caught up in these centrifugal forces are some reasonably sane nations, notably the Germans. And the Germans probably can—just—keep things from going completely tits up in Europe, though the French will want the credit, of course.  But the Germans are unlikely going to do more than that because they are still apologizing for that whole evil-genius-global-domination World War II thing.

We’ll all be better off if the British could, you know, elect an actual government and  get back to being an engaged and reasonable participant in global politics. And just as a coda to that Acheson quote, as a loud and proud Brit let me offer a rebuttal to any similar snarky condescension still remaining among our American cousins. The Empire had to go, of course. It was patriarchal, racist, and infused with outrageous snobbery and hubris. Plus, having a quarter of the planet ruled from a smallish island in the North Atlantic is just a dodgy proposition from a liberal democratic perspective. But it’s not like the Empire went missing because we couldn’t remember if we put it on the shelf or in our pants pockets. We did not so much lose an Empire as sacrifice it in order that the Nazis and Imperial Japan would not have theirs. That was, hands down, the best trade ever made in the history of geopolitics. Even if it did mean that for decades afterwards the entire population of the United Kingdom had to live on warm beer and snot butties while condescending Yanks diagnosed their ills and made fun of their teeth.

Absent Empire the Brits did find another global role for themselves. It was being a buttinski, but a very British buttinski.  Routinely insufferable and occasionally barmy, but at the core decent and level headed, and mostly willing to do the right thing without too much chest beating or fuss and bother. And, god knows, we could use more of that in the world, especially now America has come unglued.

So, UK, if you could see your way to getting back your stiff upper lip old self, and do it toot suite, we’d all appreciate it.

*OK you asked: EU Commission regulation 2257/94 stipulates that bananas must be free of “abnormal curvature.”

Low Times for Higher Ed

According to Philip Arthur Fisher, twentieth century super-investor and all-around smarty pants, “the stock market is filled with individuals who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” These days it’s not just the stock market infested with such philistine philosophies. Fiduciary myopia, the propensity to be all penny eyed and pound mulish, dominates the public sector.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I know of an investment opportunity with a guaranteed annual return of 800 percent. Sure, it sounds like too-good-to-be-true Bernie Madoff bunkum. But it’s not a Ponzi swindle, it’s real. For every buck you put in, you get eight bucks back. Year. After. Year.  After. Year. You’d probably say sign me up for some of that action. So you’re clearly not an elected official, especially a state governor with a business background. Then you’d basically be saying, “A whole buck? Let’s make it 75 cents and save a quarter!” And then you could boast to the taxpayer about saving them four bits. Or, to put it another way, cost them two dollars.

The investment whereof I speak is higher education, which is being shorted big time by the wolves of Bawl Street. Indeed, it’s gotten so bad that some public universities are essentially being privatized by the governments that own them.  This huge disinvestment in higher education–I’ll get to the numbers in a bit—has, no doubt, saved some governments some dough and cut the tax dunnage of the average Jane and Joe by a few pennies. But it’s costing the lot of them more than they can imagine.

Public universities are kind of astonishing institutions. Most people think of them as academies of advanced learning. And, yeah, they do a lot of educatin’. Right now, roughly three-quarters of students in college are enrolled in dear old State U or its equivalent. But public universities do a lot more. For instance, they are also in the bidness of bidness. In a single year public research universities will spin off more than 500 start-ups, apply for more than 10,000 patents, and generate untold billions in local business sales.

Public universities are also prodigious idea factories, with tons of useful stuff constantly percolating out of their R and D shops. The internet, for example, which was birthed in Leonard Kleinrock’s lab at UCLA. Other stuff we find useful that was significantly or primarily developed by public research universities include LEDs, ATMs, laser eye surgery, bar codes, and sonic toothbrushes. Whatever the problem or challenge society faces—anything from a need for a longer lasting lightbulb to better dental hygiene—you can bet your bippy some public university is all over the search for a solution.  They’ve developed new antibiotics, gene therapy and the wetsuit. They came up with the McRib sandwich fer cryin’ out lout (you’re welcome).

Oh yeah, they are also the closet thing American society has to an escalator to the middle class. The median mid-career salary of a graduate at a university like mine is eighty-two grand. True, on that salary you won’t be swilling cocktails at this weekend’s Mar-a-Largo crass bash. But that’ll get you a reasonably comfy middle-class billet. These days a college degree may be no golden ticket to easy street, but it’s still the closest thing to an all access pass to main street.

Add all this up and it’s clear that public universities are a good deal. Especially for the states that house them. The eight-to-one bang for buck ratio mentioned above is based on an economic analysis of the impact of the University of Nebraska. Now, NU is a big expense for the state – it dumps in north of a half-billion dollars annually into the university system, which is somewhere between eleven and twelve grand per student. The economic impact of that system, though, is roughly $4 billion – an 800-percent return. The university accounts for about 4 percent of state GDP, accounts for one out of every 36 jobs, provides most of the doctors and nurses, and it also houses the most sacred religious site in all of Husker Land – Memorial Stadium, a football temple that, no foolin’, becomes the state’s third largest city on football Saturdays.

Keep in mind that 800-percent return is just the economic impact. The social and cultural impact of educating a huge swath of citizenry, sparking innovation, launching careers, and generally opening eyes and minds is tougher to monetize. While I haven’t got an exact number to point to here, it’s safe to say that in technical terms the impact here is, like, mega-big.

While any honest crunching of numbers shows public universities to be a good deal, many state governments no longer consider them a good investment. Pretty much every state in the union has been dis-investing in higher education over the past decade, in some cases drastically.  Here at the University of Nebraska, for example, per-pupil state funding has dropped by a fifth in inflation-adjusted terms since the turn of the century, and higher education spending a proportion of the budget has been in a pretty linear nosedive for a couple of decades.

And public universities in Nebraska, comparatively speaking, are doing well. Nationally, states are spending about 20 percent less per-student than they were eight or nine years ago, and higher education spending as a proportion of state budgets has shrunk nearly a third over the past 15 or 20 years.  Some big flagship state universities already get so little support they are already effectively privatized. For example, only about 16 percent of the University of Michigan’s general fund budget is taxpayer supported.

State leaders are not exactly hiding what they’ve been up to with higher education budgets. Some of the squeeze was unavoidable (we had that whole Great Recession thing), but some governors wear their cheeseparing as a sort of ideological merit badge. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Susana Marinez in New Mexico, Sam Brownback in Kansas, Pete Ricketts in Nebraska—there’s a long list of state leaders loudly and proudly pinching pennies in ways that inevitably lead to unburdening their constituents of untold pounds.

The most obvious effects of all this budget beggaring is program cuts and tuition increases—the two primary options public universities have to deal with eroding state support. The end result is not just that we’re producing an entire generation of loan drones, millennials whose social and economic opportunities are pretty severely constricted by debt taken on to pay for school. It also means that for many, college is just not an option. Economic diversity is shrinking at public universities, primarily because those on the lower end of the economic scale can’t afford it. We’re taking the most powerful engine of upward mobility our society has devised and restricting the fuel intake to two cylinders.

Now there is a legitimate debate to be had on whether the average Joe or Jane should be coughing up an extra few bucks so the kegger brigade down at the U can keep itself solvent. Fair enough. What about sonic toothbrushes, though, what are they worth to the average taxpayer? LEDs? The internet? The antibiotics that might save that same Joe and Jane? What about the dang doctor you need to administer those antibiotics? What about the thousands of indirectly supported jobs that help keep the economy humming? What about the football team for chrissake? (There, I said it).

The point is public universities are worth a lot more to the states that own them than people realize. That includes a lot of elected officials. This crowd often knows what higher education costs. They are often clueless about its real value.

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.