Daniel Larison

Fantasy, Celebrity And Dynasty Politics

Several people have already taken a whack at the embarrassing Ruth Marcus column arguing for Caroline Kennedy’s appointment to the Senate from New York. Marcus expresses enthusiasm for something that is a sure sign of a serious sickness in our political system, which is the increasing role of dynasticism in our politics. In Marcus’ case, though, this is combined with an embrace of celebrity politics as well as what I would call fantasy politics. Not every argument for dynastic succession and office-holding is necessarily focused on the person’s celebrity, as it is not always the case that the heir is a famous socialite, and very few are tied up with bizarre fantasies of political fairy-tales. Lisa Murkowski holds her office thanks to good, old-fashioned nepotism (or, technically, filiatism), but does not benefit from any particular celebrity status, much less weird pseudo-hagiographical cults built around her father. Kennedy is a special case: she is famous because of her father, and has inherited the strange mystical adoration that some liberals still insist on showering on him, and so benefits three times over from the dynastic connection.

There have been many cases of actors entering politics, trading on either their fame or their ability to assume a pleasing role or both, but as others have already observed the actor-candidates earned their offices through campaigning and demonstrating some basic competence in matters of policy. An appointment for Caroline Kennedy would mark such a shameless embrace of dynastic politics that it might even make members of the Nehru-Gandhi family blush. What makes the Caroline Kennedy case so disturbing, and Marcus’ enthusiasm for it so appalling, is not merely that it grates against every democratic, meritocratic, and liberal instinct, but that it represents a full embrace of unreality.

Many Palin critics mocked her selection as something out of a cheesy Disney movie; Caroline Kennedy’s advocate in Ruth Marcus is openly declaring her desire to have Enchanted performed in the Senate. The blurring of politicians and celebrities, which became one of the main themes of this election, would be surpassed here by the replacement of mundane politics with fantasy. Her support for Obama, perhaps even more than Ted Kennedy’s endorsement, was deemed to be important because of nothing more than the symbolism of it and the continuation of the Kennedy myth that it represented. Were she to be appointed Senator for the same reason, it would mark another step in the tawdry, sentimental Princess Dianification of our politics.

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Seeing Into The Future

So John Boehner, whose re-election to the leadership I condemned in my latest column, had this to say about Cao’s win:

[T]he Cao victory is a symbol of what can be achieved when we think big, present a positive alternative and win the trust of the American people.

Obviously the national GOP is going to spin this as best they can, and Boehner needs to make the most of what little good news he gets, but without taking anything away from Cao it is clear that this result was a repudiation of Jefferson and his corrupt dealings. Under normal circumstances, no Republican was going to win this seat, and everyone knows this. As even Cao’s most enthusiastic boosters acknowledge, his re-election in a majority black, Democratic district is going to be very difficult. This doesn’t necessarily say anything about the quality of Cao’s candidacy or his future in Louisiana politics, but the rapturous response to his win is beginning to feel a bit like the brief Ogonowski boomlet after the latter lost a special election by a smaller margin than some expected. The 2007 MA-05 special election was widely hailed on the right as proof that a GOP comeback was in the works–after all, a little-known challenger had run so well in Massachusetts of all places. Republicans then went on to lose another 21 seats this year. As for Ogonowski’s subsequent political career, well, the less said the better.

Cao is by all accounts impressive, intelligent and appealing, but the GOP is not going to rebuild its majority by running extraordinary candidates in deep-blue districts that will vote them out in another two years. They need instead to start recruiting decent candidates in marginal districts. It is telling that essentially no one in the party hierarchy was backing Cao and they didn’t even know who he was, which means that the most outstanding Republican House candidate this cycle was the one not actively supported by his party.

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Cao To Washington, Blagojevich To Jail

After the string of Republican House defeats, indictments and convictions, plus Ted Stevens’ conviction, Joseph Cao’s election win over the disgraced William Jefferson of LA-02 comes as a much-needed boost to the GOP. Quin Hillyer paid attention to this race several weeks ago, and his article is the best account of Cao’s biography you are likely to find. Sharp, highly-educated and successful Asian Catholics from Louisiana do seem to be the best thing the Republicans have going for themselves, and this would be the case even if the GOP were not the ramshackle disaster that it is today.

The first I heard of Blagojevich’s arrest came through my front window from a passer-by talking to someone on his phone, “They have arrested our governor.” This is turning out to be a good week, I thought to myself. I assumed that Blagojevich was going to be brought down by whatever Rezko was giving the feds as part of his bargain with them, but the news about his trying to sell the open Senate seat for cash or other favors was like something out of a cartoon or perhaps a Northern version of Kingfish. Illinois has long had a reputation for corrupt politics, but in the last decade it seems as if it is striving to outdo all others in having crooks in office, while Louisiana is going in quite the other direction. Like Reihan, I imagine that “Candidate 5,” the person implicated as a potential buyer of the Senate seat, is probably State Sen. Emil Jones. If that is the case, it would be Obama’s ties to Jones, much more than any ties to Blagojevich or Rezko, that will cause people to look again at Obama’s Illinois connections. Jones’ role as Obama’s patron and sponsor in the state legislature has gone largely unremarked in the national media, except in John Kasscolumns. It is not an exaggeration to say that Obama would probably not be where he is today without Jones, and if the latter were implicated it would be at the very least an embarrassment for the incoming administration.

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Name Changes

Steve Sailer makes an interesting point with respect to the Mumbai name change that hadn’t occurred to me:

All these people are missing the essential point: Name-changing increases ignorance. People lose the thread. The libraries are full of books referring to Bombay, not to Mumbai.

Most people in America had heard of Bombay and knew it was in India. Until this terrorist attack, most Americans had never heard of Mumbai and had no idea that it was in India or that it was the large, famous city they had once heard of as Bombay, where all the Bollywood movies are made.

I might be tempted to say that it would be difficult to increase the average person’s ignorance of India, but that’s not the point. Offhand, I would say that if you knew that Bollywood movies were made in Bombay, you were already way ahead of the crowd, which didn’t know that Bollywood movies existed. So I’m not sure that these people would be terribly confused by the new name. That being said, I have objected in the past to the new ecumenical name miaphysite being applied to non-Chalcedonian Christians. The Copts want to use this name, and I don’t think it matters one way or the other. For starters, it is not meaningfully distinct from the existing, albeit pejorative, label monophysite, and it is just one more term that people have to learn about Christological differences where terminology is already confusing enough for most people. Most relevant books refer to these Christians as monophysites or by some other antiquated label (e.g., Jacobite), so relabeling all of them miaphysites to make a point is rather silly and bound to create more, rather than less, obscurity. It is likely to increase confusion, if not ignorance, and thus make it harder for people to understand the Christological controversies. Even so, the change to Mumbai is not that hard to adjust to, so I don’t quite understand why there is so much resistance.

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The Worst Kind

Joe Carter draws our attention to Meacham’s latest. Meacham is so very deeply concerned about the integrity of the Faith and its intellectual seriousness, you see, and so he begins:

On the campus of Wheaton College in Illinois last Wednesday, in another of the seemingly endless announcements of splintering and schism in the Episcopal Church, the Rt. Rev. Robert Duncan and other leaders of the conservative forces of reaction to the ecclesiastical and cultural acceptance of homosexuality declared that their opposition to the ordination and the marriage of gays was irrevocably rooted in the Bible—which they regard as the “final authority and unchangeable standard for Christian faith and life.”

No matter what one thinks about gay rights—for, against or somewhere in between —this conservative resort to biblical authority is the worst kind of fundamentalism. Given the history of the making of the Scriptures and the millennia of critical attention scholars and others have given to the stories and injunctions that come to us in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, to argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt—it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition.

It might be worth bearing in mind that Meacham is an Episcopalian and has very clear views about both homosexual “marriage” and ordination (he is in favor of both), so he has a vested interest in framing the opposing view as the “worst kind of fundamentalism,” which is just about the worst thing one Episcopalian can say about another. That interest is not necessarily disqualifying, but it colors everything Meacham has to say.

Of course theologically conservative Episcopalians are claiming that the Bible is the final authority and unchageable standard of Christian faith and life–the contrary view that the Bible is not this is not only a minority view among Christians today, but is entirely at odds with the “great Judeo-Christian tradition” that Meacham claims to be defending. The word unchangeable does make the claim more powerful, because it states that the revelation in Scripture is eternally valid and the same, but then how could it be otherwise? If Christ is the same “yesterday, today and forever,” as the Apostle wrote in his Epistle to the Hebrews, and Christ is the Word through Whom the Father reveals Himself, it stands to reason that God’s revelation recorded in Scripture will also be essentially unchangeable.

The different senses of Scripture, the complexity of its history and the history of its composition in antiquity do not contradict this claim. Indeed, the presumed complementarity of different senses of Scripture, the different ways of interpreting the Word of God, is founded on the assumption that the Word does not change, but has a richness and depth that cannot be exhausted by one kind of interpretation alone. This is one reason why, particularly in liturgical churches that interpret Scripture in the light of authoritative written tradition, patristic commentaries on Scripture are regarded as valid and authoritative interpretations until today. It is taken as given that the ancient Church and Christians today have received the same revelation. It is an expression of fidelity to the breadth and richness of the Church’s tradition to acknowledge this, and it is the farthest thing from intellectual bankruptcy to respect the intellectual and religious tradition that has recognized Scripture as such a central authority and to give its claims appropriately great weight in Christian teaching.

Having already shown that he has no grasp of any of this, Meacham proceeds with his “Christian case for gay marriage.” He puts enormous weight on the intrinsic nature of homosexuality, which is to make a quality of postlapsarian nature normative. In a fallen world, everyone has a predisposition to act contrary to our true nature, but in no other case that I can think of do we pretend that indulging such a predisposition is inevitable, much less something to be embraced and approved. Meachem is no more persuasive or credible when he cites examples of how certain passages have been abused in the past. Nowhere in his article does Meacham even begin to take seriously the central importance of denying oneself in Christian discipleship. God did not call His people to indulge their inclinations, but to deny themselves to follow Him. This is why the comparison with race is so inapt and ultimately so absurd. There is no way that, and no reason why, someone of any race could refrain from being the way he was born. Homosexuality is entirely different, in that acting on it is a matter of volition and a determination to pursue one’s own will rather than denying it. Whether or not one is born with such an inclination, that would not be a license to indulge that inclination. Meacham’s argument is essentialist and actually denies the responsibility and agency of homosexuals, which is far more of an attack on their humanity than refusing to allow them to “marry.”

The heart of Meacham’s argument does not bear much scrutiny, and we have not even come to the question of how entirely divorced Meacham’s entire argument is from a Christian understanding of the purpose of marriage. Procreation is an important part of that purpose, and joining two people from different sexes in complementary relationship is another, but beyond that it is a vocation to unite oneself to a person radically different from oneself. The uniting of complementary opposites as a type of the unity between Christ and His Church is one of the mystical meanings of marriage. The Christian conception of marriage is of two people joined into one flesh, the full expression of which is a child. Nowhere in the “great Judeo-Christian tradition” that Meacham supposedly takes so seriously is there support for his argument.

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Conceding Too Much

John Schwenkler and John Cole both responded to my earlier post on the call for social and religious conservatives to use reason, rather than appeals to religious teaching, in public arguments. Schwenkler is correct when he writes:

Indeed, I would say that conservatives have if anything devoted too much time to the task of “proving” things like the immorality of abortion (or the existence of God, though that’s a topic for another post) to the satisfaction of their secular peers – where exactly observers like Parker, Cole, and the rest have gotten the impression that things are otherwise is something of a mystery to me.

Many of Parker’s critics have made this point, stressing how typical reliance on reason and empirical evidence is in pro-life arguments. I alluded to this when I noted that it was not the kind of argument employed that mattered to those put off by social conservative views, but the conclusion at the end of the argument, and when I mentioned many pro-lifers’ preference to frame things in terms of rights and equality (hence their fairly frequent comparisons of their own cause to past progressive emancipation and civil rights movements, as if they hope that this will win them bonus points from bien-pensant people). In the past, Ross and I have gone back and forth over whether it made sense for pro-lifers to use philosophical language that already conceded basic claims of individual autonomy. If I recall correctly, Ross did not think this ideal, but regarded it as an unavoidable necessity if pro-lifers were going to be able to make their case to others. At the very least, we would not have been having such an argument if this had not been prevalent in pro-life arguments for some time, so Parker was railing against something that is far more rare than she supposed (if she gave much thought to the matter at all). There are some, including myself and John Schwenkler, who think more forthrightly religious arguments are more compelling, because they concede fewer important assumptions, but we are decidedly not representative (as usual).

There are a few reasons why there is a perception, or rather misperception, that appeals to religious teachings are commonplace in social conservative arguments, and therefore a self-imposed limitation on social conservative ability to persuade others. There is the tendency for people outside of a group to miss distinctions among members of that group that are both obvious and significant to those inside it. It is true that one can find, perhaps among Theonomists or staunch believers in the “Christian nation” reading of American law, direct appeals to Scripture in their arguments on public policy, but these are not representative of social conservatives generally. Among the loudest critics of impending “theocracy,” finding marginal views on the Christian right and then conflating them with the views of all Christian or, more broadly, social conservatives are common methods used to try to link all forms of social conservatism with far more intensely religious and specifically Christian arguments. What an outsider will dub the “narcissism of small differences” does not usually appear small or trivial to those inside the group. There is another tendency, closely related to the first, to lump together everyone who claims membership in that group and make sweeping statements about what “they” do. These are common habits, I’m sure I have fallen into them on many occasions, and we all tend to make such generalizations more sweeping the less we understand (or care about) the diversity within another group. Obviously, the less sympathetic someone is to the group in question, the more likely he is to make sweeping statements that cast the group in whatever he regards to be the worst light. It can also be appealing to frame opponents as being more radically different from the “mainstream” than they really are in the hopes that persuadable people (i.e., those usually paying less attention) will come closer to your side.

The preference for arguments that do not appeal to religious teachings or Scripture is based in the social conservative version of the “defensive crouch,” which recognizes the resistance to these appeals and instead tries to debate on the terms set by opponents. There is a similar move among some non-interventionists, who will critique the war in Iraq by conceding broader claims about U.S. hegemony or the official demonization of other regimes for the sake of appealing to a broader audience. While this can be useful in showing how the war has worsened things on the terms of its proponents, it is fundamentally weaker than a full-throated critique of the illegality and injustice of the invasion or a straightforward argument that the war has significantly worsened our national security, and it is not particularly more likely to persuade anyone. For instance, it is correct to argue that our invasion of Iraq has greatly strengthened Iran’s influence in the region, and one might think that this would make many of the most vocal supporters reconsider the wisdom of the war when it leads to what they must, and theoretically do, regard as a bad outcome. However, this is not what happens.

Even if they acknowledge that Iran’s influence has grown significantly as a direct result of the war, and even assuming that they always regarded Iran as the greater threat, these supporters will insist that the U.S. presence in Iraq must continue in order…to contain Iranian influence! After all, even non-interventionists think that expanding Iranian influence is undesirable, so how can they want us to leave now? All that this sort of argument will have done is to help legitimize the next round of demonization, sanctions and military action, and meanwhile it undermines arguments against a long-term U.S. presence by granting that the containment of Iran ought to be a high priority, but it might well be considered more “reasonable” and more likely to persuade because of its weakness. By pulling off a clever maneuver that temporarily succeeds but ultimately plays into the strategy of the opponent, larger objectives are abandoned and even the temporary success gained from the maneuver vanishes.

Likewise, having conceded the centrality of individual autonomy with appeals to rights theories, pro-lifers are no more likely to persuade those on the pro-choice side, as they have already admitted the fundamental assumption that pro-choicers use to defend their position as the morally superior one. Once pro-lifers have allowed the debate to be defined in terms of choice vs. coercion, or the individual vs. oppressive society, winning over people, especially those in the “persuadable” middle, will become harder, not easier.

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Persuasion And Persuadability

Related to another post from earlier in the day, and inspired by Michael’s article in the new issue of TAC and Reihan’s post on national defense, I started to think about the problem of persuasion. Michael notes that movement conservatism is not engaging in any serious rethinking–even most of the reformers/reformists are by and large tinkering around the edges and none of them has much of anything to say about changing U.S. foreign policy–and he observed that there was absolutely no reconsideration of the war in Iraq going on. Some of our realist friends would dispute that and say that they have been thinking about the lessons of Iraq, but for the most part the lessons they are saying they learned are not all that satisfying. What would war supporters have to accept to demonstrate to opponents that they had learned the right lessons?

Stating the opponents’ case, Paul Schroeder wrote this for TAC last year :

The argument here is that the war never went wrong; it always was wrong, in specific, basic ways [bold mine-DL]. The distinction is fundamental, eminently practical, and involves lessons that the U.S.—its government, elites, and broad public alike—has not yet learned. It accounts for the fact that all of the current plans for getting out of Iraq are not really plans for genuinely getting out, but plans for staying on in one way or another so as to minimize further losses, recoup sunk costs, and protect particular interests. It means that until we squarely face what we have not hitherto faced as a nation—what this war represented, what we have done, and what this says about who and what we are—we will not be willing or able to take the practical steps necessary to contain the fire now burning, dampen and extinguish it as much as possible, and do what is necessary at home and abroad to prevent an even greater fire next time.

For the most part, such self-examination and self-criticism have not yet begun, and I doubt that they will start anytime soon. Even though it seems obvious to us that the war was decisive in wrecking the reputation of conservatism and the GOP, I suppose there is a certain logic, or at least a certain inevitability in the enduring conviction that there was nothing wrong with the war in Iraq that more soldiers and better planning couldn’t have solved. As Michael says, “It would be too incriminating to question the justice of the Iraq War.” More important than that, though, it would require not merely rethinking and some genuinely painful change for conservatives, but it would probably also involve tearing down some long-established, more widely-shared national myths. As Anatol Lieven said regarding the potential for policy changes in the new administration:

How much of this is likely? Eight years in Washington left me with considerable pessimism about the capability of the U.S. policy elites—Democrat as well as Republican—to carry out radical changes in policy if these required real civic courage and challenges to powerful domestic constituencies or dominant national myths [bold mine-DL].

This got me to thinking about Reihan’s remark that he didn’t think the Iraq war was pointless. Of course, I do think it is pointless, and worse than that, and have said so repeatedly for years. If it is anything, it seems to me, it is now pointless. That’s one of the more complimentary things one can say about it. At one time the war may have had a purpose, and back then it was a bad one; now it doesn’t even have that. How can one possibly persuade someone on the other side of such a huge chasm that he is on the wrong side? This is a problem that goes beyond language, tone and framing, because once you get past all of these things war supporters basically accept an important national myth–America does not fight futile, much less unjust, wars–and this is plainly irreconcilable with recognizing the futility of the war in Iraq, to say nothing of acknowledging its injustice.

Reihan is as smart and fair-minded a person as you can find among supporters of the war, and if I could imagine persuading anyone on the other side that the war was, in fact, an exercise in illegal aggression that did nothing to benefit American national security and served no vital U.S. interests that person would have to be Reihan. Right away, however, I am struck by a basic difficulty: how can a war opponent honestly call the war what he regards it to be while persuading a reasonable war supporter that he should no longer support it? Debates over the war have been as fruitless as they have been in part because the core assumptions and foreign policy visions of people on either side are so wildly divergent and contradictory that they are barely talking about the same thing.

This brings us to the larger question of persuadability–who is actually persuadable on a given question? I have started to have the creeping suspicion that persuadability in debate is very much like being an undecided voter: the less you know, and the less you have thought, about a particular topic, the more likely you are to be persuadable. This has much less to do with being reasonable, open-minded or willing to look at evidence; persuadability is probably closely linked to lack of knowledge, and the side in the debate that successfully fills that gap first wins. The longer you have been tied to a particular view, and the more time you have spent articulating reasons for holding it, the less persuadable you are going to be. Those who are persuadable are also likely to be the weakest in their newfound convictions, which they will drop just about as quickly as they adopted them.

It is true that there are war supporters who have since soured on the war or some that even flipped and became staunch opponents; war has radicalizing effects, and especially when things go awry it can cause dramatic shifts in the views of some people. Some who trusted the administration’s claims were burned when those claims were proven bogus. On the whole, however, very, very few have come into opposition because of antiwar arguments. This is a sobering realization. Was this because those making the antiwar case made unpersuasive arguments? Viewed narrowly, the answer would have to be yes, but it seems to me for the most part people who have changed their view on the war did so because of events. Their changed view had nothing to do with antiwar arguments, except indirectly insofar as events seemed to vindicate some or most of war opponents’ warnings and undermined the optimistic claims of supporters. Michael laments that ideas don’t matter in movement conservatism, but I am beginning to wonder if they ever matter in these debates.

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Don’t Mention The Deity

How about social conservatives make their arguments without bringing God into it? By all means, let faith inform one’s values, but let reason inform one’s public arguments. ~Kathleen Parker

This is the standard Damon Linker line, which has always had the small problem that it doesn’t make sense. That’s not quite fair. It makes sense, provided that the goal is to keep religious people from making public arguments that have any force. Parker, like Linker, would likely deny that this is the goal. In Parker’s case, I expect that this is because she hasn’t thought through the implications. Were we to follow Parker’s model, we would on the one hand need to say that arguments informed by religious teaching are to some degree irrational by definition (use faith over here, but use reason in public, which implies that there is nothing rational about faith or that the two are not complementary). On the other hand, we would also have to say that our public arguments cannot invoke “values,” which are in any case derived from religious teaching and therefore unsuitable to public discourse. Even to the extent that “values” might be allowed, they would have to be “values” that do not conflict with pluralist, liberal “values.” This is the Social Gospel loophole, which permits the use of Christian discourse for left-liberal ends, but which clearly forbids any version or interpretation of Christian teaching that conflicts with these “values.”

The point is not that there are not secular arguments against abortion, to take the example Parker uses, as there clearly are. Secular people on the whole do not seem terribly interested in those arguments, nor do they show any more respect for them than they do to explicitly religious ones, because the issue is not the kind of argument being made but the moral and political conclusions that are being drawn. This may reflect the extent to which different political and philosophical traditions function as little more than tribes that use mutually unintelligible mythologies, in which the answers are all scripted and known before the inquiry begins. All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again….Debates cease to be an exercise in persuasion, and become instead an occasion for performance and expressing identity. Structuralists everywhere will be thrilled.

The point here is that social and religious conservatives should not have to truncate, abbreviate or deny their religious teachings when making public arguments, which is effectively what they would have to do if they are not to refer to God or religious teachings in public discourse. They could not in good conscience do so, but leaving that aside for a moment we should also acknowledge that it puts an undue burden on religious believers to insist that they leave out appeals to their core beliefs, which are or are supposed to be at the center of their understanding of man, society, creation and reason itself. It’s as if you said that liberals can make their arguments, but they must never refer to equality for any reason, but it is even more constricting than that. In the end, what Parker is saying religious conservatives should do is to accept the premises and terms of the debate that are hostile to their side before it begins, and then try to make an argument for their view under those constraints. As a matter of rhetoric and politics, this is a losing proposition. Once you have accepted fundamental assumptions of your opponents (and accepting that one can only use public reason in argument is to concede a fundamental liberal claim), you are merely negotiating the extent of your defeat.

Many modern conservatives will look at Parker’s statement and agree with it, because, as Rod reminds us of MacIntyre’s observation, “in America, all political arguments are among conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals.” This is true even of a great many religious conservatives, which is why time and again when religious conservatives are challenged in this way the best response many of them can muster is that “they have a right” to free speech and religious liberty. Indeed they do, but that is not nearly powerful enough and once again accepts–as most public pro-life rhetoric already does–that we must speak in terms of individual autonomy and individual rights. Perhaps that is the most telling thing of all, in that it acknowledges that we do not recognize appeals to God or obligations to God as being in any way authoritative, but we invest appeals to the self and the rights of the self with tremendous weight, which is a function of a culture that is egocentric and decidedly not theocentric.

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Closer To The Truth Than We Would Like To Think

The Russian newspapers had generally played down Mr. Obama’s victory, she said, because it got in the way of the establishment line: that the corrupt American democracy is composed of two warring family machines that have the system wired and controlled with the help of their corporate oligarch cronies [bold mine-DL]. It’s not a real democracy but a pretend democracy, and a hypocritical one. This helps the Russians rationalize and excuse their infirm hold on democratic ways and manners. And then the black man from Chicago with no longtime machine or money is elected . . .

So the Russian press muted its coverage. Mr. Obama’s victory upset their story line. ~Peggy Noonan

I have no way of knowing why Russia media covered Obama’s election one way or another. There is an argument that Kenyans responded with such delirious joy at Obama’s victory not only because his father was Kenyan, but also because it helped to console them for the complete breakdown of their own democratic system this year. So it is not obvious that a need to rationalize and excuse an infirm hold on democratic manners translates into muted responses to the election result. Perhaps the Kremlin is less interested in which party controls the White House than it is in the policies the candidates espouse, in which case a lack of interest in Obama’s victory might stem from a recognition that the next administration will not be very different at all with respect to Russia. What should interest us here is now how the Russian establishment line got things (not entirely) wrong, but rather the real flaws in our system, which also happen to provide fodder for other governments to cast aspersions on the integrity of our political process.

If you replace the word family in that passage above with the word political, you have a similarly cynical, albeit far from false, description of our system. Looking at both policy and personnel in the new administration, the cynical Russian (or American) would have to work overtime lately to see where exactly significant change is in the offing and why the description in the passage above is supposed to be wrong. Perhaps the Kremlin actually admires the ability to engage in such a theatrical display to promote the illusion of dramatic political shifts while not changing anything fundamental. It is something of an art form, I grant you, and we have been practicing it much longer than they have, and it is not hard to see why a political establishment would want to learn how to imitate it. It is certainly curious way to frame Russian criticism of the American system by attacking the role of family dynastic politics and oligarchic cronies, but then I suppose the purpose is probably to try to minimize the differences between the two countries.

Even so, consider how debased and broken-down our standards must be that we consider it some kind of vindication of popular government that the two clans that have held executive power for the last twenty years did not happen to have a blood relative on either presidential ticket. Then we would remember that this was to some extent an accident on the Democratic side (had Clinton made any serious effort in the caucus states in early February, the “story line” above would have been almost entirely vindicated), and it was true on the Republican side perhaps only because of the unusual degree of incompetence shown by the current office-holder. Had Bush not been judged an utter failure as early as late 2006, how many of us really think that his brother would have stayed out of the presidential race? Except for his brother’s ruined reputation, how many think he would not have been seriously considered for a VP slot? Remember that a majority of the GOP still approves of George W. Bush even now–imagine what his approval rating among Republicans would have been had he not been quite as disastrous as he was! Does anyone believe that, between his establishment ties and governing record, Jeb Bush could not have won the nomination, had it not been for the great incompetence of his brother? For that matter, does anyone think that a relative outsider such as Obama would have stood a chance of winning the nomination of his party had it not been for the calamitous Bush Era and the complicity of so many leading Democrats in its calamities? Consider how fully this administration had to fail and how deeply unpopular Bush himself had to become to render the Russian “story line” invalid where it might have otherwise been all too accurate, and then tell me that there is not something rotten in our politics.

It seems to me that one of the greatest dangers of the last two electoral cycles is that it will nourish the illusion that our political system self-corrects and is functioning more or less as it is supposed to be functioning, when we should notice instead how atypical the last two cycles have been when compared to the rest of the previous twenty years. The point is not to deny the existence of real grassroots political activism, nor is it to say that such activism is entirely ineffective, nor is it to say that the fix is completely in, but it is to draw attention to a serious malady in our political system, which is, as Glenn Greenwald has observed recently, becoming increasingly inbred and nepotistic. There are families with entrenched power and disproportionate influence in both parties, and this is corrosive and unhealthy for our politics. There is something that rings a bit hollow when we keep hearing that the elite is a meritocracy (leaving aside for the moment how that merit is defined) and then we see political dynasties becoming more and more prevalent. That would be bad enough on its own, and we haven’t even begun to discuss here the question of the oligarch cronies.

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Resisting Mass Democracy In Thailand

Leon Hadar draws attention to a Financial Times post that I had wanted to discuss earlier. The ongoing efforts of the urban middle, or upper-middle, class in Thailand to force a change to the structure of Thailand’s legislature to minimize the influence of poor, rural populations are a fascinating modern example of liberal backlash against democracy, an attempt to have liberal political institutions that also give significantly different weight to different classes of citizens. The coup against Thaksin provided the decisive rupture in the normal political process that created the opportunity to try to roll back mass democracy. Unlike previous episodes in modern history, the mass democratic movement appears for the moment to be losing to the more mobilized, coordinated urban liberals. Some may object that the bourgeoisie here is not really liberal, but merely a self-interested elite. I don’t see any necessary contradiction here.

What is interesting and different about this case is that there is not a landed aristocracy or any old guard conservative magnates who are willing to ally with the rural and poor population, as happened time and time again during the democratization of many different European countries. It was frequently a practice of anti-liberals in the late 19th century to expand the franchise to lower class people as a way of undermining the power of liberal parties, which drew their strength overwhelmingly from urban middle-class merchants and professionals. The latter were very political active and engaged, and more important they were of sufficient means to be allowed to participate in the electoral process; they were also not very numerous. Expanding the electorate was bound to dilute liberal power, because the majority did not particularly benefit, at least not directly, from liberal policies. In Austria, this was entirely successful, perhaps far more successful than the conservatives wanted, as Christian Socialism and Social Democracy overwhelmed the liberals after conservative elites empowered the countryside and the expanding population of workers in Vienna. Defenders of the privileges of landed elites were able to join together with non-German ethnic groups, farmers and workers, all of whom were clearly put at a disadvantage or otherwise alienated by the policies the liberals enacted during their brief post-1867 stint in power. In the aftermath of their fall from power, the Freisinnigen were reduced to a rump and their members for the most part either embraced social democracy or some form of pan-German nationalism (incidentally, the modern FPOe is more or less the direct inheritor of the latter tendency).

In Thailand, as in Austria and many other modernizing states, the urban middle class allies itself to the monarch, but unlike Austria this is not an alliance of desperation and last resort. Like Franz-Josef, King Bhumibol probably believes it is his duty to protect his people from their government, but I would guess that the King would not be terribly distressed if the forces that helped bring Thaksin to power are constrained by the new proposed rules for the legislature.

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